Compassion

There’s been quite a bit of talk on my social media lately about kindness, humanity, activism, and how these things play off of — and against — each other. I’ve seen a number of people who I love and respect be hurt by the words and actions of others, and this isn’t an easy thing for me. I went to bed last night ruminating on some of this, and the word that kept ringing in my head above all else was simply ‘compassion’. This word, this concept, has become central to many aspects of my life recently, though it’s always been a part of it in a pretty significant way.

I was raised in the church. While there’s a lot of churches out there that focus on other aspects of their religion, most of the leaders I looked up to during my youth focused on a singular interpretation of what Christianity truly meant, and how best to reflect its ideals in our daily lives. Youth pastors, church elders, and my own parents instilled in me one great concept: that being a Christian is not about reading the Bible, it’s not about praying, it’s not about keeping yourself surrounded with those of the faith. The way I heard this phrased that stuck with me most was simply this: to lead a Christ-like life.

I’m not a part of the church anymore, having slowly separated from it during my late teens. I think the last time I attended a service was probably 15 years ago. Still, this concept was so ingrained in my upbringing that I don’t think I could ever really carve it out of myself. So, what was it that it meant to lead a Christ-like life? To me, it meant to model my very existence after this fellow described in the Bible by the name of Jesus. I don’t hold to many of the precepts of my religious beginning, but I still think this man — whoever you believe he may have been, or whatever else you think about those who claim to follow him — is a pretty good model for shaping a life worth living. At the core of that existence, if we strip away all but the lessons tied to his name in that book, is compassion.

A lot of people, I think, mistake compassion for saccharine kindness. Compassion can absolutely be this; it can be the softening of an impossibly hard blow, the mincing of words to make harsh realities more palatable. Doing this all the time, though, is far from compassionate. Covering up an ugly truth is not a kindness, but an almost-sinister deception. To lie in order to preserve feelings is not compassion. Being truly compassionate means that, sometimes, you’ll have to rip off the bandage and allow a wound to breathe. It means that you’re willing to help others confront ugliness, even when that ugliness is within themselves. Sometimes, it means being blunt.

This isn’t to say that there’s no room in a compassionate life for handling things gently. There are, of course, times where tact is needed in order to be kind. This, though, isn’t the same as just being “nice”. Being nice is often a byproduct of selfishness or narrow scope; we can adjust our frame to fit the world that we wish to see, and keep our words within a limited spectrum to avoid hurting others’ feelings. Being compassionate does not mean that you will never hurt someone that you care about; it means that you will be there to help them tend the wounds. It means being willing to set aside the comfortable existence of pretending that those wounds don’t exist, or should not be examined, in order to facilitate progress towards a more healthy whole.

Even in my work life, the theme of compassion has been at the core of my recent experience. The company I work for doesn’t just put the word on posters, but truly tries to get its employees to embrace it. I’ve had training sessions and meetings focused on examining the role of compassion within our lives, both at work and at home. The simple truth is that my job sometimes requires delivering news that can be devastating to others; we’re taught not just how to do this tactfully, but how to help people cope with the life impact of what we’re saying. Honestly, it’s been the easiest part of adapting to my “new” company culture since I began just over a year ago, and it’s the part that I try my best to carry home with me when I leave. I can’t allow myself to bear the burdens I’ve seen throughout the day, but I can reflect on the way that I’ve helped others bear them, and think about how to best ensure I continue to do this moving forward.

I awoke this morning to a private message on Twitter. A friend, someone who I deeply respect and feel is an example of the strength that I wish I saw in myself, felt the need to go out of her way to thank me for being who I am. This was an incredibly wonderful and moving thing to wake up to on its own, but it was her choice of words that drove it home in a way that made me feel like I’ve been doing a good job of being the person that I wish to be. I hope that she doesn’t mind my sharing a piece, not because I feel like being self-congratulatory, but because when someone reaches out to simply tell me that I show ‘ level of compassion that very few people have’, it truly and deeply moves me and is a big part of the reason that my late-night introspection became this behemoth of text today.

I suppose the point of this, and why I felt I should say it, is this: I want to believe that I am holding myself to the highest standards of compassionate conduct. I want to put this forward, because I want anyone who’s read it to call me out when I fall short. That’s what compassion is, after all; a willingness to take the uncomfortable step and tell someone that they aren’t being the person that they say they wish to be. It’s the act of helping each other grow as humans, and to accept the help that others offer us even when we’re unable to see the need in ourselves, and it is the act of setting aside yourself in order to listen, learn, and grow.

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