In my last post “Responsibility: Where does Gandhi’s Steer Take you?”, I asked the question: What is compassion? I asked this because living the change I want to see means being a compassionate person. I want to see, give, and experience more compassion in the world. As a practicing mediator, I think about compassion a lot. The other day I found myself talking with a fellow mediator – Jack – about compassion and hit on something I had not seen so clearly before: the connection between compassion and invisibility. I am a woman very occupied by the importance of seeing our selves and allowing ourselves to see and be seen by others. And now I recognize more clearly that compassion is all about seeing and being seen.
Compassion is a word that needs to be reclaimed. It feels as though to many it is a dirty word. Firstly, compassion often is equated with pity, which in turn is linked to a sense of superiority. But compassion is not pity and it does quite the opposite of creating a sense of superior and inferior: compassion connects us as equal human beings. Secondly, compassion became political with the idea of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and Cameron’s ‘Hug a Hoodie’ call to action back in 2007. This was a shame because we definitely need more compassion to be woven into politics. What we don’t need, however, is politics being woven into compassion – because then the latter simply disintegrates. And what Cameron did felt more like the latter than the former.
My fellow mediator, Jack, is well-versed in Buddhist teachings and is a very compassionate individual. On Saturday he was showing me compassion – doing a lot of empathic listening as I stood before him in tears describing what was alive in me with regards to something which had been unsettling me for the past two weeks. Later, Jack would tell me that he really appreciated getting to know me better through that exchange. I was aware that I had allowed myself to show my vulnerabilty to someone I didn’t really know that well – but knew enough to know he has a very gentle, open spirit. I felt safe in allowing my doubting, judgemental, upset self be visible to him. Receiving his compassion required that I allow him to see me- and I let that happen.
Jack also commented on how he had enjoyed getting to know me by seeing me at work – in my professional element. On Saturday we had been out and about door knocking for some work we are doing together. At one point, Jack and I – along with a third mediator – were talking with a group of sixteen year old boys. I asked them : “Do you carry knives?” This seemed to offend some of them, but it was a legitimate question in the context. They all wanted to make it clear that they didn’t carry knives and weren’t interested in violence. In response to this exchange, I found myself asking them about they how they imagined other people see them and if they thought people were seeing them as they would like to be seen.
Jack was seeing me. And I was also seeing myself – personally and professionally. As Jack listened to me empathically, I repeatedly would see myself in new ways – see what was beneath the tears, the anger, the frustration – what beliefs I am carrying that are weighing me down and feeding destructive tendencies (a good empathic listener can be a mirror to one’s soul). Similarly, though not as deeply, Jack saw that I was trying to see those sixteen-year old boys and similarly hold a mirror up to them so they could see their selves.
And what Jack and I discussed as we reflected on all this ‘seeing’ is that compassion involves helping people to see for our selves and show to others what we often keep hidden – render invisible, stashed away out of sight. And what is at the heart of compassion is the idea that what we see in others is no more that what is in us. We connect to what we are seeing in someone else because it is familiar. We all know what it is to feel sad, angry, hurt, frustated. We all know what it is to lose trust and to fear. We all know how it feels to be invisible. The details of the experiences which give us such wisdom/insight will differ. Yet, the feelings are the same.
The more we are able to see our selves, the more we are able to see others. This is one reason why self-reflection has such an important role to play in social change – if we are not visible to our selves, then we will have a hard time not only seeing others clearly but it will be challenging to see and connect with each other compassionately. For example, we might meet someone who has been bullying people and judge them for being a bully, for hurting others. We are likely to be angry with them, even feel hate. If, however, we have an awareness of the bully within – the part of us that we know is capable of being and has at times been, the bully – we can then find compassion in how we connect with that person. This does not mean we go ‘soft’ and let people get away with harmful behaviour, give them excuses. It means we respond in a restorative way – in a way that is intended to contribute to healing, to connecting with each other as one vulnerable human being to another.
Compassion is about seeing self in other and other in self – melting down the binary of self and other. Let us reclaim compassion for what it is: our human capacity to connect with one another out of a desire to alleviate suffering because we all know what it is to suffer and what is to desire joy. In that way, we are all equal. Writing this post makes me wonder how much of himself could David Cameron see in those ‘hoodies’ he wanted people to hug? And what are the different forms a ‘hug’ can take? For example, how comfortable would he feel letting the young people he and others call ‘hoodies know how much they have in common? How comfortable would he be to listen empathically to the stories of these young people’? This includes stories of destructive behaviour which I would say aren’t about bad people but are about bad choices. And we’ve all made bad choices.
This post is also making me think about how (un)comfortable people generally feel with the idea of compassion – because a lot of people across the political spectrum let out a nervous laugh in response to Cameron’s ‘Hug a hoodie’ call to action. Sure, in some ways it deserved some sniggering. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but think Cameron was on to something quite meaningful, albeit perhaps quite unconsciously and perhaps not so strongly rooted in true compassion. Unfortunately, in the political realm, we tend not to talk about compassion openly and honestly. We see it as a touchy-feely matter, not for serious deliberation. This is despite the fact that we often hear politicians say they would like to create more caring communities. Well, if we are going to do that, we need to create more compassionate communities.
When you are doing your work to help others, how much of them can you see in you and vis-versa? What exactly does being compassionate mean for you? How compassionate are you being – with your self and those you are trying to support? How could you be more compassionate? What do you fear about being more compassionate?