By Kellie Schorr
I come from a long line of Tennessee hillbillies, er, Appalachian Americans.
My grandparents on my father’s side—Charity Grace Rupard and William “Stone” Rupard—were subsistence farmers who owned land in a holler (hollow) in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Where’s that? As my uncle Claude would say, “It’s right down the dirt road past the forge outside of town, which is a skip from the highway to Mountain City, oe’r the mountain from Johnson City, not far from Bristol.”
Charity and Stone had eight children, of which my dad was the “last boy.” His little sister, Carrie, came three years after he did, and stole “youngest” right out of his hands. Sandwiched between two girls—“Baby Carrie” (they called her that until she died in her 70’s) and Cettie, the oldest—were six strapping boys. The small farm held plenty of work to keep those many hands busy, and those many mouths fed.
They grew tobacco to generate income for the land taxes, and made just enough moonshine, er, home-crafted-corn
The Compassion Challenge
We talk a lot about compassion in Buddhism; it is the heart of the Buddha, it’s the passion of the practice. It’s our best selves—our real selves—and although time, tide, words, and wounds can make it hard to access, it is always there for us to reclaim. But what is compassion? While watching various news stories, and the overwhelming debate over what compassion looks like in these difficult, multi-faceted situations, I felt challenged. I sat to meditate on what I should do or say. I didn’t come up with many answers (cushion time is almost never about answers), but I realized that everything I need to know about compassion (and the lack thereof) could be found in that little farmhouse built into the side of a mountain.
Stone, by all accounts, was a good man. He was also a stern man. Rules were rules, and if you crossed them, you paid the price. If you broke it, you fixed it; if you couldn’t fix it, you figured out how to live without it. No playing in the outhouse, oh, sorry, the external unisex bathroom facility, and no animals inside the house (that means you, barn cat!). When you think of what it must have taken to raise eight kids on a small farm with no help, little social support, and lots of praying about the weather, his attitudes probably kept the family from starvation, ruin, or loss.
On the other side was Charity. If something left you feeling on the outs, she’d mistakenly cut an extra-large piece of cornbread just for you. When the day was settled, she’d sit on the porch sewing quilts from cloth remnants everyone in the valley brought her. When she’d finish a few, she’d ask my uncle to take them to the county fire department in case someone lost their home to fire and needed a warm blanket. Not long after her 90th birthday, someone from the fire department showed up on the farm and asked to take her picture. It seems they’d been keeping count. The last quilt she gave them was number 250. Let that sink in. A woman who had probably never handled more than a hundred dollars “cash money” in her whole life, hand-made 250 quilts for people with far more than she ever would have in case they ever found themselves having less. Charity indeed.
Reflecting on this couple who shed the seeds of life to me, the blurry view of compassion I’d been lamenting became much clearer.
Compassion is not the Action.
Compassion is not an act. Compassion is a fuel. Compassion is being with someone, and putting yourself—as much as you can—in the space they are in just so you can stand beside them—hurting as they hurt, and healing as they heal. That presence can create an action. Compassion may lead you to lobby for the rights of an oppressed community (that’s activism or advocacy). Compassion may lead you to give someone some money, food, or the dignity of seeing them when no one else does (that’s intervention or interaction). Compassion may lead you to go the extra mile or speak truth to power. Compassion is the fuel, not the destination.
Compassion is not Co-dependence.
Compassion does not take away personal responsibility; it empowers us to discover it, and it gives us the strength to: do our work of healing, reach out, endure, and be free. Compassion is not a shield that keeps the world away, and it doesn’t make everyone play nice in the sandbox. Compassion may fuel education, activism, or social justice to decrease suffering. However, compassion doesn’t beat up your assailant. Compassion holds your hand while you stand your ground or find safe harbor. When people start thinking another person, group, or community needs them, the line between compassion and co-dependence is dangerously blurry. Be a voice with people, not for them. Buddhism teaches us that we are all interconnected, but we are not enmeshed. We’re interdependent, not captive.
Compassion is not Control
Compassion is a connection with basic goodness that each person must make for themselves. You can’t shame other people into compassion. You can’t give people a list of do’s and don’ts and call it compassion. You can’t create positive good by exhibiting negative reactions. You can strengthen the interconnected circle by sharing your compassionate love, care, and work. Compassion is understanding that everyone is in a different place in life and allowing each person to arrive where they need to be in their own time. Charity said (many times in my life) that, “The same rain that grows the corn, drowns the rat, honey.” To which Stone would probably say, “It’s the rat’s decision to make, but I’d find higher ground.”
Compassion is helping and helpful; connecting and collective. It’s the fuel that takes us to happiness and allows others to find the path to their happiness too. Compassion is seeing; compassion is opening; compassion is allowing. I have found the middle way in my thinking on compassion. It is reasonable, and it is magical; it is strong enough to support and flexible enough to allow.
It is somewhere between Charity and Stone.
Kellie Schorr works as a commissioned novelist who writes mystery genre novels for publication services. Her published writing credentials also include: journal articles, short stories, and a two-year stint writing for a web-comic. Kellie’s fiction is represented by the Kathryn Green Literary Agency. Kellie has been practicing meditation for over 15 years. She studies Dharma and took Refuge vows in the Shambhala lineage of Buddhism. When she’s not sitting down to write, or sitting on her cushion, she enjoys comic books, computer games, tea, and movies. She lives and works in rural Virginia with her partner, Cathy, and three beagles. Her favorite word is chiaroscuro.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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