By John Author
I’ve never thought of myself as the most compassionate person, but my views about myself are usually wrong.
A few studies have shown that our friends and loved ones usually know us better than we know ourselves. So, according to public opinion, I’m compassionate—I just don’t feel compassionate. I don’t feel warm and fuzzy when I donate to a charity or listen to someone’s tales of woe. I don’t usually tear up when I hear about the atrocities that occur in the world. I sit there with a stiff upper lip and absorb the information.
That could be because I’m a man, and that’s the way men are taught to be in our culture. But I don’t think that’s the case because I wasn’t always this way. Even into my early 20s, I was very emotional and empathetic.
It could be that I had to eventually sacrifice strong emotion in the name of basic sanity. I might have reached a decision to treat emotions like passing clouds, watching them from a detached and peaceful point of view. I tend to watch the entire world, the entire universe, from that same viewpoint.
People are born, and people die. Civilizations come and go. According to some theories, the entire universe will eventually dissolve into black holes; even those holes will collapse into themselves leaving not one particle or iota of energy leftover. That prospect probably horrifies most people but, to me, it sounds like the happy ending of a fairy tale—infinite nothingness beyond all concepts and motives with not even the Dharma remaining. No time, no space; actually, it would be even less than nothing. That’s so astonishingly beautiful to me. If there’s anything that reveals where I’ve been, it’s that a thought like that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.
It does put everything into perspective, and it helps me to help others without getting tangled up in the madness.
Chogyam Trungpa felt that we should be compassionate, but that we shouldn’t engage in “idiot compassion.” Idiot compassion is just what it sounds like—compassion devoid of wisdom. This is hot compassion. It’s manic, emotionally charged compassion that can blind reason and skew judgment.
Like anything else, even compassion can be burdened by instant gratification.
Sometimes compassion is about taking the long view, about being patient and dignified rather than submitting to a kind of slobbering, emotionally charged, speaking-in-tongues kind of compassion. Nothing good has ever come from a riot or a violent revolution. “Well, what about America? We were created through a violent revolution.” Exactly, and look how that turned out.
Compassion is reasonable. It doesn’t make any sense to go around hating and harming everyone, and science shows that compassion and altruism are actually part of our genes. It’s how our ancestors weathered the wild. Oxytocin is a hormone, a drug, that makes compassion and cooperation a rewarding experience because cooperation and compassion help us survive.
The evolutionary benefit is why only one out of 100 people is a psychopath, rather than 91 out of 100.
I can’t treat compassion as some kind of metaphysical universal like some ancient Buddhists did, but it’s definitely part of our makeup. As a species, we’re always stronger and safer working together than we are on our own. Each person has a different skill set, and it’s only by coming together that we equal one superhuman force—a multi-being organism that has the best of everything, whose individual imperfections are balanced out by the propensities of the tribe.
But we’re alone now, and technology has helped to facilitate this isolation. It’s helped us to live thousands of miles from friends and family, it’s helped us to disengage from people we don’t agree with. This creates an environment that’s inhospitable to compassion.
We can’t just block or unfriend the people we work with; we can’t put ourselves out there into the workaday world without encountering humbling opposition. Technology is supposed to bring the world together, to allow us to learn from and exchange ideas with people we’d never have encountered in day-to-day life.
Instead, it’s luring us into our own little worlds where what we say is law, and each disagreement is an unforgivable offense.
Compassion is our biological urge to thrive and survive. As we grow further and further apart, we’re not only hastening our own extinction but, far more appalling, we’re creating a world that isn’t worth living in. We’re creating lives that are so fake and lonely that authentic interaction feels uncomfortable and intrusive, where even a touch on the arm from a friend kicks in our fight-or-flight response.
Compassion, just like clean water or air, is imperative to survival.
Photo: Davide Bonazzi
Feature photo: (source)
Editor: Dana Gornall