By Kellie Schorr
I’m a steady and strong person, often the “voice of reason” (even when I’m sometimes unreasonable), and peaceful at deep, still-waters level.
I am occasionally funny and often laughable. When I’m involved in those awful group “tell us one thing about yourself” events, I always say the same thing:
“I feel the like the whole world is a miraculous kite—dipping, swerving, and soaring in the beautiful blue expanse. I am a string—holding, protecting, helping, and going with the flow of the winds.”
Right now, the string is pissed off. Right now, I’m so angry at the tornado that seems to be tearing my kite to ribbons while I watch in stunned horror that I’m barely able to function.
Listening to the President of United States openly mock testimony about sexual assault, watching the experiences of harm that have been an undercurrent of being female for generations finally rise to the surface, only to see it batted away as a “scary time for men,” and watching people argue, not about the best way to do right, but who is wrong, is doing something to me.
I have visions of destruction so vibrant that I wince when I daydream.
I have said things I have never said about another public person that are so pointed I’m afraid to say them in front of Alexa. I sit down to meditate like a swan and before I can catch the first wave of breath, the Incredible Hulk has burst through my being, scattering emotional blood and feathers all over the room.
My practice is consistent, helpful, and sustaining. I am in a learning season, thriving on wisdom ancient and newborn, and yet—again, again, again I ask myself—where is my compassion? What happens to the “we are all waves in the same ocean” reality when I’m mentally stabbing the surface of my world?
Am I Buddhist or a bullfighter? Maybe, a little of both. Is that possible? I don’t know. I know this time is a teacher, and here is what I’ve learned.
Compassion is not Love
While a critical component of love is compassion, compassion does not mean you have to love. Many people in the West come to Buddhism steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even if you weren’t raised in a church, the ideas permeate our social strata. “Love your enemies” we are told. We carry it subconsciously as a template we feel we should be trying to follow. Fortunately, Buddhism has no such edict. Frankly, I’m relieved to be freed from the impossibility of it.
Compassion doesn’t mean we have to love the people who hurt us or others. It simply means we can never deny that at the heart level, the root humanity, we are connected. It means we recognize the source of their harm is a disconnected, confused core, lost from its own good nature. It does not mean we should pity the damaging folks among us or excuse their behavior.
It does mean when it comes to real life—real actions (not our revenge fantasies which are about us, not them)—we won’t hurt them anymore than they already are. You can be compassionate and angry at the same time.
Compassion is not Mild
When we hear the word “compassion” our mind usually flashes to someone extending a helping hand, or at least an open one. We imagine sweetly smiling people going through personal sacrifice to provide food, water, or solace to someone else. There’s a weird mythos surrounding Buddhists and compassion that makes it seem as if we go through our whole lives with soft eyes and gentle, slow nods; sort of like people in a drugged haze with just enough clarity to drive and grocery shop.
That is not compassion. Compassion is fierce. Compassion calls out wrong. Compassion holds people accountable. Compassion deals in the currency of truth, which isn’t always pleasant.
Yelling, cussing, and marching with strongly worded signs and bone shattering stomps may sometimes lack decorum, but not compassion. Compassion lies down with the wounded, and stands up to hurtful. Compassion may help you get off the floor, or remind you that you know to rise and it’s time to do it for yourself. Compassion isn’t always “nice” but it is always ready to be present.
Compassion is not a Personality Trait
Perhaps the most prevalent misconception about compassion is that it is part of our personality and in some way absolute. We say things like “Bob is so compassionate” or “I want a compassionate doctor.” Yet the most wonderful people can act harmfully and the worst among us can give amazing grace.
Compassion doesn’t flow through your veins like blood or fall down from the heavens like rain. You make it. Compassion is a fuel.
Like gas in a car, compassion can drive you forward. If you don’t refill the tank, it will eventually run out, leaving you on the side of the emotional highway cranky and stuck. That’s the power of our practice—it can refuel our actions and intentions. Awareness is knowing when the tank is getting low and needs to be replenished. There is no shortage of the ingredients of compassion in our world. Sometimes you just have to work a little harder for the harvest.
Don’t beat yourself up in situations where you realize you have acted without compassion or your thoughts are more sandpaper than silk. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re a human being and right now the demand on your patience, your heart and your mind is very high. Give yourself the first ounce of compassion you generate, so you can make more for the long run.
We don’t have to love or defend the people and systems creating harm. We do need to remember we are connected to the harmed, and the harmful.
We don’t have to be nice about it. We do have to be honest about it.
We don’t have to be perfect through it. We do have to care for ourselves along the way.
When I look at my world, I see that national kite diving straight into an abyss, and I find my stringy solid self pulling hard against the winds to try to change its direction. I am frayed, and knotted. I’m doing what I can with the strength and resources I have in my keeping.
That’s compassion. That’s enough.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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