A Reflection on the Promise and Limits of Compassion


THE VALUE OF COMPASSION

As a teacher and dedicated practitioner of yoga, philosophy, and spirituality for over 15 years, I am a vocal proponent of compassion as a daily life practice. Its underlying premise of oneness and solidarity in our trials and tribulations is a trait that, when practiced with intention and offered toward those both within and outside our familiar circles, puts the “human” in human being.

I define compassion as the authentic attempt to wholly grasp another’s situation and resulting emotional state. It is the attempt to feel with passion—(“com”= with “passion” = suffer)—alongside another individual or group. It contrasts with pity in this essential belief of oneness. Compassion says, “I feel the pain of what happened to you, and I understand that if this [disease, loss, trauma] can happen to you, it can happen to me, it can happen to any of us, you are not alone.” Pity, on the other hand, says, “I feel badly for what happened to you, but that could never happen to me, and I hope it’s not contagious.” Pity is thoughts and prayers. Compassion is reaction and response.

Giving and receiving compassion is nourishing and revitalizing to our soul. It keeps us humble, youthful in spirit, and awake to all kinds of human struggles. As a result, it allows us to live our own lives more fully and express gratitude for the gifts in our lives more regularly. It provides the purpose needed to involve ourselves in difficult movements dedicated to equality. Without an internal compass of compassion guiding our lives, we tend towards criticism and judgment: “They shouldn’t have bought a house in a flood zone” “Why don’t those people just stay and fight for their own country instead of wanting to come here?” They knew what they signed up for.” Judgment separates us. Compassion unifies us.

I believe compassion strengthens us, connects us, and make us better, more evolved human beings. I have often promoted compassion as something for which human beings have unlimited capacity. I still believe these things. Well…mostly.

In a world over-saturated with pain and suffering, I feel my own capacity for compassion beginning to fray. Both natural and human-born crises—floods, fires, hurricanes, gun violence, genocide—fill the news at unprecedented rates and record-breaking intensities. Hopping from story to story, there seems to be no end to the atrocities that Mother Nature and our fellow human being are willing to unleash upon the world. I’m in a daily battle to stay informed, engaged, and compassionate, while maintaining both my mental and physical well-being. I’m doing everything I can to not numb out and say, “That’s sad.”

And then, dropped right into the midst of all this overwhelming news and my own internal struggle came these comments: “While you were watching x, y happened over here” or “Why do you care about b, when c is just as/more important?” These questions, and the resulting inner trajectory they sent me on, has me reconsidering what I believe about the promise—and limits—of compassion.

WHEN IT’S NOT ENOUGH

My first reaction to these questions was instinctual and primal: guilt, guilt, guilt. I argued back with these faceless accusers in my mind. I argued, because every day I try to read the personal plights of survivors and casualties. Every day, I make myself “go there.” I imagine myself and my own reactions to these events, study the pictures of the victims and their families, read their final messages to loved ones. I refuse to look away. Aligned with my practice and philosophy, I send them and their families what I hope is compassion. And yet, it’s not enough, these faceless people seem to tell me.

I admit that yes, I’d seen the news about Somalia. No, I hadn’t given it the same kind of compassionate attention—measured for me by words on a page—as I had the massacre in Las Vegas. Yes, I admit I went down the rabbit hole of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #Metoo movement. No, I don’t honestly think it’s more important than innocent people, or soldiers, being killed. And I should be better, I tell myself. I really, really, should. And I want to be better.

But after the guilt slunk away, I did what we all must do when facing discomfort: dove deeper into the discomfort in search of the source.

BLAME THE MEDIA

The first reaction any of us might have in questioning what gets our attention and what doesn’t is to blame the media (all the kids are doing it these days). They are an easy target, for they certainly do highlight and over-analyze some stories while glossing over or even ignoring others. But before we lay it at media’s feet and absolve ourselves of responsibility, it’s important to remember that they are largely responding to viewer feedback. Stories that generate more clicks, shares, and comments get more attention in the next news cycle. The media are not a separate entity from ourselves. They are more truly a mirror to ourselves, reflecting back our own tendency to delve into the nuance of some stories while passing over others. If we are going to blame them, we have to wear that criticism too.

This means asking why aren’t we, the consumers, more diverse and inclusive in our own news-gathering or sharing efforts? There are hundreds of great reporters, magazines, news outlets, and radio and television talk shows from both political aisles working hard to lead important, relevant conversations every day. If we’ve been watching the same stations every day, wondering why we’re not seeing this or that story, it’s time to change the channel. The stories are out there for those of us willing to diversify our intake.

VICTIM IDENTIFICATION

Unable to blame the media and move on, I looked closer to home. Here, I found an example of how I had recently gone about securing my husband’s undivided attention and compassion.

One evening, after reading a story about a couple who hid in their pool while fire raged over their heads in California, I wanted to share my emotional response with my husband. The woman had died in her husband’s arms that night, and I couldn’t stop imagining what those last hours were like for this long-married couple on vacation with family. As I spoke, he offered mostly baseline, distracted sentiments. I was trying to tap open his heart, and he was battening down the hatches. I got frustrated. So I said to him, my voice raised, “They were playing a board game with their family that night! A board game!” Meaning, I suppose, that they are just like us—because we too enjoy playing board games. By forging an identification with the victims, I won his full attention.

It’s natural (though I admit this part of human nature is not so commendable) that we are more likely to stop at a story about people or places we can relate to in some way. For myself, stories about the horrific ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, while unfortunately too few and far between, easily win my attention. This is because I travelled there three years ago on a personal pilgrimage. A friend of mine says this is true for her about stories that occur in Indonesia and Bali. I’m sure this is true for all of us. I don’t know if these admissions make us bad human specimens. I do think it makes us imperfect, inconsistent, and incomplete human beings. Could I have triggered my husband’s compassion response if I had said instead, “They were offering their nightly prayers!” I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

VULNERABILITY

After looking outside at the media, and then a little closer at my husband, I was finally ready to look at what’s been going on internally for me. I began to see that with each story I read about human tragedy, suffering, and survival, and with each life I considered being taken without warning, I felt my own connection to certainty, stability, and groundedness weaken.

Yes, compassion practices provide a deep sense of oneness and solidarity. But, like no other practice or human emotion, compassion calls us to feel more deeply into the vulnerability of being human. It bursts our own personal bubble of invincibility and infallibility. It shakes down the boundaries that have allowed us to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. It unknots the fallacy that terrible things can’t happen to us suddenly, too.

In small doses, acknowledgement of our human fragility can fuel a new lease on life. But allowing the knowledge of our own mortality to penetrate our hearts, awaken the full spectrum of human feelings, and allow this to impact the way we go about our everyday lives, is not something everyone is willing to do, especially for the sake of strangers halfway around the globe.

The work it takes to offer authentic compassion takes a toll on the body and mind. It’s a deeper draw than simply emoting sadness, pity, grief, shock, or even anger—emotions that can come and go without leaving too much of a footprint on our hearts. Compassion leaves an imprint that changes us forever.

COMPASSION FATIGUE

I want to feel more, pay closer attention, offer my compassion without limits or boundaries. I think most of us do. But then, I wonder how much I, or any of us, can truly take. I have to take care of myself, too. I have a husband, children, and pets who need me present and aware, not falling down pits of despair.

Mentioning my inner struggle to a friend one day, she said, “You’ve heard of compassion fatigue, right?” I told her I hadn’t, but that I would look it up.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website, “Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

It goes on to say, “Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue.

This website is orientated toward offering support and guidance to caregivers of a professional designation. But its wisdom easily applies to all of us who “other-care” in any capacity as a human being, above and beyond a job title. Yet, there was an important distinction between what I was reading and what I was feeling. In most of instances of professional caregiving, there is, if not just the allusion of effecting change, the actual ability to effect change. But what happens with our emotions over human tragedies for which we can’t effect change? None of us can stop hurricanes, floods, or fires. None of us can stop the wars. Few of us are in position to directly save children from captors, predators, or abusers. With nowhere to channel our fire of compassion into action, it can eventually burn us out.

At this point, it’s no longer helpful to practice other-compassion, but critical to go inward and offer self-compassion. We must tend to our own essence, reconnect with nature, and surround ourselves with love, lightness, and beauty. I recognize the truth of this more clearly now than ever before.

GOING FORWARD

We are nearing the one-year mark since the election of Donald Trump. Given the unwillingness of this current administration to even acknowledge, let alone seek to abate, climate change, we can only expect that we will continue to see more catastrophes in the years to come. (And there’s little evidence we have the power to reverse course any longer even if we started in earnest today.) Mother Nature’s rage will continue to break records—increasing in scale, intensity, speed, power, and death tolls. In addition, without any effort to legislate common sense gun control, it is almost certain that we will witness more horrific tragedies on innocent Americans in public spaces. Mix in the current issues of healthcare, citizenship, opioid addiction and more, it’s quite a lot for any superhero to take in, let alone for us mortal beings.

If self-love and self-compassion practices—along with a good diet, exercise, and a supportive and safe environment—don’t grow at the same rate as our awareness and compassion practices, we will burn out. Any undue suffering we take on in the name of compassion leads only to more suffering in the world, not less. I see this more clearly now, too.

A NEW APPROACH

I for one need to consider how I will carry forward these new lessons and move more mindfully through this second year. I will need to guard my compassion a bit more closely. For what I used to believe and teach about the unlimited nature of compassion might have a caveat. The soul may very well be capable of unlimited compassion, but once channeled through a human body, compassion has limits we must honor—limits that allow us to live our own lives with some amount of peace and joy.

We humans are only ever doing the best we know how. There is a delicate dance going on inside each of us—between offering ourselves and protecting ourselves; between active engagement and withdrawn desolation; between what we wish we were capable of and what we truly are able to do. The line between letting ourselves feel enough to come into oneness and solidarity with all beings, and taking on too much until we become too numb and frightened to live at all, is as fine as baby’s breath.

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