I think we'd all agree that compassion in human life is a very fine quality to possess and foster. Some people seem to be born with it in spades; many others need a lifetime's journey to reach that place of special love and caring we call compassion. Having been an English teacher in my earlier life, I'm interested not only in the meaning of words or how they're used but their subtle undertones.
Compassion is more than love and caring. It comes from the marrow of a person, his or her DNA, from a deep longing for connection with others. It also relates to forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance, all lofty challenges for most of us. In addition to meaning, I seek application. I want to know how the things I write about can be used in a practical way. How does compassion manifest in daily life and how can we achieve it if it doesn't come naturally?
For the Planet
If anything needs our care in 2011, it's our poor wounded planet. Just as much as we love ourselves and our friends and family, we ought to love the Earth that we inhabit, that supplies our needs, feeds us and gives us such natural beauty and grandeur, our very lives. Yet we abuse her, take her for granted and treat her with indifference and neglect, like bad parents and cold custodians. It's not just up to governments and local authorities to do the cleaning and clearing up. Each one of us can do our bit. With the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, at the very least, we have seen a new consciousness of the need to care more for the planet we call home. Even if it's only small improvements like recycling, conserving water and using less power, not littering and suchlike, every little bit helps.
I'm a passionate supporter of animal welfare. It's not just a matter of loving animals or keeping pets; it's a philosophical matter. My attitude is that animals can't speak up or defend themselves. They are totally vulnerable and at the mercy of humans. As long as they're alive, they ought to be treated with dignity and, of course, compassion. All domestic pets deserve a safe and comfortable life or if they're very lucky, they end up in my home like my cat who leads the life of Riley. Animals bred for consumption should be handled with dignity and care, not transported live to their deaths. Dolphins and whales should not be slaughtered, nor elephants hunted for their tusks, endangered species ought to be protected, seals, bears and foxes should be allowed to keep their coats and so on. It's about valuing all life. We share this planet with all living things; we don't own animals. We are their guardians, whatever role they play in human life.
It is very heartening to me to see the way young parents these days treat their children with a respect unheard of in earlier generations. After all, respect is a two way street. Parents are very good at demanding it but not so ready to give it. As Kahlil Gibran said, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you."
So, how do we show compassion to children? By realising how powerless they feel, even those who come from loving, supportive families. By teaching them that they are precious, beautiful, totally accepted and loved, especially when their behaviour is anything but lovely. You can never love, hug or praise a child too much or give it too much time and attention. If we give children discipline but as few rules as possible, boundaries but lots of scope, encouragement in their pursuits and interests, a good foundation of morals and values mixed in with creative freedom, we can't go wrong.
Perhaps the hardest one of all, yet it should be the easiest. Why do we find it admirable to be compassionate towards others but not ourselves? We should always be our own best friends. To do that, we need to trust our own judgement, believe in ourselves at all times, accept ourselves totally, forgive our many mistakes, and most importantly, value ourselves. One of the main reasons for human unhappiness is self criticism. If a friend is in trouble, we don't attack that person but we think nothing of beating ourselves up and using negative self talk like, "I'm so stupid." If you find yourself doing that, neutralise it by saying, "I did a silly thing but I'm not stupid." Be gentle with yourself. When you're lonely, reach out to a friend who may be feeling lonely too; if you're sad, allow yourself to cry; if you're angry, rail at the moon or scream into a pillow; if you feel unappreciated, appreciate yourself.
For Each Other
Compassion between family and friends is often difficult to achieve, mainly because those closest to us are the ones who press our emotional buttons the most. The very things that attracted us to each other as partners, for instance, end up driving us crazy - unless we're enlightened enough to understand the process.
Power struggles only occur when we take positions, insist on being right and demand the other person change. Acceptance is a vital ingredient in healthy relationships of all kinds. It doesn't mean agreeing but allowing others to be different. When two people get married or become friends or form a business partnership, differences are actually beneficial if we allow ourselves to learn from them. They help us grow and heal. Any two people or group can move towards the middle of these differences and therein lies compromise, tolerance and love.
For Life Around Us
While there are unique challenges in operating with compassion towards our loved ones, it's sometimes even more difficult with strangers and people outside our immediate sphere. We tend to be hostile towards people, cultures, religions, nationalities, even foods and clothing that we're not familiar with. Indiscriminate compassion is the most valuable kind, what these days is called "random acts of kindness". If we don't care for our fellow travellers on the journey of life, we don't stand a chance in this volatile world that we ourselves have created.
We live in a time of unprecedented violence, cruelty and crime. In our own community, we see a constantly increasing incidence of burglary, road rage and mindless fighting, even arson. Doesn't all this stem from a lack of compassion?
In a kinder environment, wouldn't we care for our neighbours' property, safety and wellbeing? Would we really invade the homes of the aged, lash out in alcohol-fueled anger and set fire to bushland with no respect for lives, property or the land itself? Compassion would compel us to value our pristine beaches, clean roads (have you been overseas recently?), fresh air and open skies. There'd be no littering, waste, bigotry or hatred, no name-calling or racial disputes.
I've painted a picture of the world we currently inhabit and then one of the world as it could be. The missing ingredient that defines the difference between the two is compassion. It has to start in the heart of each of us and, from there, extend out to everyone else, especially those whose hearts are closed to the joy and beauty all around. People who are rude, opinionated, unpleasant, cold, angry, aggressive and so on need the most compassion of all. It's easy to feel kind towards those who are nice. Caring for our immediate circle of family and friends is wonderful but universal, spiritual love encompasses the entire global community. A flood in Thailand, a shooting in the US, a family fire in Europe - all these should touch us equally, as much as a local tragedy. John Donne, the poet, said, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." If we become too parochial, we risk forgetting that love has no limits, not distance, time, colour or quantity. You can never run out of it and compassion is the best manifestation of love.
Compassion is more than kindness, more than a shaking of the head when we hear bad news, more than baking a cake to help a neighbour or doing charity work. It has to come from a deep humanity that says we're all on this spinning ball together and, as the nuns taught me in school, "On every human heart is stamped the word FRAGILE."
The opposite of compassion is prejudice, hate, judgement, intolerance, harshness, criticism, aggression.
There's a tenderness associated with compassion, a lack of judgement, a willingness to listen and empathise. Sometimes, all that's required is to listen quietly, to hug and to smile.
On radio last week, I suggested we all do the following in order to have a healthy and happy 2011:
* choose to stay positive, no matter what happens
* let each day go completely
* allow ourselves to fail and then forgive it
If we can find compassion in ourselves and for ourselves, we can only offer the same gift to others.