Compassion is a necessary ingredient in engaged mindfulness; however, as with any concept, it is susceptible to misunderstanding and manipulation. In previous posts we have discussed the difference between wise and unskillful compassion. Here I’d like to discuss distortions of benevolence that are becoming more apparent in our US mainstream culture – one in which fear, inequality, and oppression are thinly veiled behind the language of compassion.
Just as with near enemies of mindfulness, if we are not truly aware of our internal landscape and underlying intentions, our baser instincts can take something beautiful and make it into a trojan horse, hiding (even from ourselves) our own ignorance, fears and aversions, or self-interested desires. When our true intentions are hidden or our vulnerable feelings are avoided, there is little opportunity for growth or new learning. We become instead trapped in a cycle of suffering of our own making.
One “stealth” near enemy of compassion is the “fragilization” of others. Psychologist John Townsend defines fragilizing as “the tendency to treat another person as if they are brittle and easily derailed, thus a ‘fragile’ person.” Though the intention may be to protect someone from undue distress, the actual result is often our own self-protection from discomfort at the expense of the disempowerment of the other person.
In a talk about bringing mindfulness to police and first responders, Retired Police Lieutenant Richard Goerling normalizes the aversion human beings often feel when we first try to sit still and silently with ourselves. He reminds us of the tendency of the untrained mind to cope with aversion by distracting ourselves, getting busy, moving the body compulsively, and when there’s a history of trauma, sometimes even dissociating from direct experience. Zoellner, et. al (2011) warn, “…it is easy to conceptualize someone who has undergone a horrific event as psychologically fragile; needing to be handled with ‘kid gloves.’ Yet, it is useful to remember that [they have] already showed a great deal of courage and strength.” Might we instead resolve to redefine fragility as vulnerability, acknowledging that life is characterized by risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure and resourcing ourselves and those we serve to skillfully face these truths? After all, true compassion involves a wish for what is best for ourselves and others, even when what is best is uncomfortable.
In light of certain historical problems that have been highlighted in recent years, I also want to suggest some near enemies to compassion that are frequently found among the power dominant groups in a society. This is for a couple of reasons. One is because people in power or who are widely represented in a population are not required to look beyond our own experience – it often doesn’t even occur to us. Another reason is because these distortions subtly or not so subtly serve to reinforce and maintain power structures to the immediate benefit of groups in power. But, because we are interdependent, acting upon these distortions comes at a cost to us all in the long run. These “near enemies” of compassion tend to be couched in the language of absolutes, purport goodwill at their core, and ignore the complexities and nuances that permeate our existence. Here are some examples:
Have you ever heard someone say they don’t see differences – that to them people are all the same, regardless of race, class, gender, etc.? While this sentiment seems lovely on the surface, it ignores many realities. A truly “difference blind” society would be one in which socially constructed distinctions among people and groups don’t impact their opportunities. Claiming we are all the same denies the disparities people contend with in their daily lives. While human beings indeed share more similarities than differences, we exist within a variety of contexts. We are raised with diverse beliefs and perspectives. We navigate a wide range of circumstances accessing varying levels and types of resources and facing a vast spectrum of challenges. Many times there is an unrecognized or unacknowledged desire to bypass painful realities – ignoring or denying differences means we don’t have to face them. If we assume that everyone’s experience is the same as our own, we are missing important information and our compassionate responses are likely to be misguided. True compassion is boundless and capable of holding it all.
Calling People Out
Honesty is such an important quality – few would argue this sentiment. Yet the manner in which we communicate our truths is also crucial. Most people appreciate being treated with courtesy and respect, yet it takes time and care to speak truth compassionately. We may feel tempted to bypass civility because it’s inconvenient. However, we are discovering that politeness is not just a nicety or a waste of time – the real world cost of incivility is actually quite high. A poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries by the Harvard Business Review found that, among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility, 80% lost work time worrying about the incident, more than 2/3 said their work performance and commitment to the organization declined, and for a significant number, the consequences rippled out to their customers. This is also true when it comes to changing harmful beliefs. Studies have shown again and again that minds are not persuaded through force or violence, but through patience and compassion.
Many times when we are being “brutally honest”, we are really just reacting to our own unexamined pain. Though it may be understandable, reacting this way doesn’t tend to contribute to our longer term happiness. Vulnerability researcher Dr. Brene Brown said in her Dec 2018 blog post, “Leading from hurt rather than leading from heart means we’re working our sh!# out on other people… Inflicting hurt rather than feeling hurt becomes a habit.” When we are unconscious of the true drivers of our speech and actions, we are susceptible to causing more harm than good. When people in power are acting out this harmful habit, the consequences can be even more pervasive and dire.
Loretta Ross, an expert on women’s issues, racism and human rights, discusses the counterproductive strategy of public shaming in her article for the New York Times, I’m a Black Feminist. I think Call-Out Culture is Toxic. She writes, “We can build restorative justice processes to hold the stories of the accusers and the accused, and work together to ascertain harm and achieve justice, without seeing anyone as disposable people and violating their human rights or right to due process.”
Related to call out culture is self-righteousness – both can give us a little immediate dopamine rush when we act upon them. But, the longer term consequences are a buzz kill. Dr. Chris Germer in his blog post Near Enemies of Fierce Compassion says, “If we are convinced that our view is morally superior to those of others, we are already demonizing (i.e., subtly harming) those who hold different views… When we demonize others, we lose common humanity.” True compassion is free from judgment and doesn’t elevate one above another, so when it’s at the heart of our speech and actions, self-righteousness is absent. We can be both fierce and loving.
Misusing the Label “Pro Life”
Just seeing the heading of this section probably stirred up some feelings in you – its an emotionally triggering topic for many – radioactive, as one friend calls it. But, I’m going to go there anyway. Please know I’m not intending to take a political stance here – rather I am inviting a mindful exploration of the label itself. Taken at face value, considering oneself Pro Life sounds wonderful – who wouldn’t want to say yes to life and be in support of aliveness? It feels like there’s no further need for examination when we adopt a slogan like this because, of course, most beings act instinctively to sustain life.
One problem with this label is that if someone questions and is inclined to look deeper, it implies they are somehow “anti-life”. To question seems like the opposite of compassion – that is until we listen closely to peoples’ stories and realize that it’s a very complex issue. As a psychologist given the honor and privilege of hearing people’s stories, I have come to recognize through experience that in our everyday lives, we rarely are privy to the big picture. The story we see or hear about in public is usually just the tip of the iceberg and there’s much more under the surface contributing to any given situation. Most of us would consider life to be the messy and complicated space between birth and death, whereas Pro Life groups, such as the National Right to Life organization, to date have focused almost exclusively on the legislation of birth and death.
Another problem with the label is it draws our minds away from the segments of society that stand to be impacted most by its goals – no surprise that its not those in power. There is little to no discussion about how this stance might be empowering for women rather than unreasonably burdensome for them. There is also very little discussion of how to care for the lives that are “saved” through the legislation of birth and death. What is needed is an understanding of how women, children, and terminally ill people can actually thrive in a Pro Life world given the current barriers and challenges we all face. True compassion means wanting to decrease the suffering of all beings, not just certain segments of the population at the expense of others. But, this is not an easy thing to balance, so it feels more expedient to some to make the issue appear to be black and white.
Dr. Germer suggests three questions (paraphrased here) we can ask ourselves to see if we have fallen into the trap of “near enemies”of compassion: 1) Is anger or hatred driving our speech and actions? 2) Is a feeling of moral superiority or self-righteousness arising? 3) Will our speech and actions cause further suffering, especially over the long term? I would also add a fourth question, “Is there aversion here?” Are we avoiding the hard work of sorting through complex issues or the unpleasantness of facing painful realities? If we are answering in the affirmative to any of these questions, it’s worth taking a closer look at our intentions and our chosen course of action.
Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer. – Anne Lamott