By Indira Grace
Buddhism teaches us that compassion is cherishing other living beings and wishing to release them from their suffering.
To achieve a Buddha-like enlightenment, we are to practice compassion, even for those people we do not agree with, or those who are perceived as “bad” or “wrong” in our society. Achieving total compassion requires great practice, but it is not impossible. However, in our society, it also looks a lot like a perceived weakness and can be punishable by ostracism, humiliation and a social death.
Recently, I had the honor of seeing Amanda Palmer in concert. I can’t say that “concert” is exactly what it should be called, because it was so much more. It was more like an awakening—a life-altering experience. I call it “Sid Vicious meets Maya Angelou.” Keep in mind that I have never seen Sid Vicious in person, but I know his persona and talent. I have, however, seen Maya Angelou live, as she sang, recited poetry and told stories, and I would say that my description is wholly accurate.
Amanda Palmer told stories, sang songs and made connections that could have only made sense in that venue, in that time, with her.
Her compassion for us as her audience, while she engaged in difficult conversation, was astounding and comforting. She never took for granted that what she was talking about (abortion and cancer and motherhood) could trigger us, so she created a way to lighten the mood whilst we traveled her life with her. And while many things that she said resonated true for me, none were more profound than when she spoke of expressing compassion at a personal cost.
Amanda explained that she was in Boston at the time of the bombings, in 2013, taking care of a dear friend who had cancer. Compelled by her fear and grief, she wrote a semi-open letter to the bombers, expressing compassion for them and their families and published it on her “private” site, where only her patrons could see. It wasn’t long before her writings became public and people became enraged.
How dare she express compassion for these animals—these monsters! How dare she give them anything less than hatred for the pain they inflicted. Because she expressed compassion and forgiveness for the acts committed, people wished her the same harm, threatened her with rape and death, and called her every name imaginable. She was astounded, hurt, and confused. How did all of this happen?
I resonated with this story, more than words can express. Perhaps, because my feelings run deep, words are trite, in comparison. I, too, have been attacked, multiple times, for expressing compassion; and it makes me wonder.
When did compassion become an act of treason against the majority? When did compassion, wishing to help end the pain of another, become a weakness and not a strength?
When I teach my students—maximum security inmates—I encourage them to align their actions with their hearts. I tell them that this is “walking their talk.” Speak from a place of heart-truth and then act from that same place. I see it is hard for them—very hard. Most of them are gang members. All of them are wounded and all of them are in prison, which is not always a safe place to be heart-centered. Yet, I hold steady and true to my message.
What are we even doing, if we are not expressing empathy, sensitivity, brotherly love, mercy, kindness, charity and humanity for ourselves and for others? I truly see them trying. They express how if it weren’t for their gang affiliation, they wouldn’t have done what they did, nor would they be where they are. They take steps, albeit baby steps most days, but steps nonetheless, toward compassion for themselves and others.
Yet, when I bring this up at staff events, or when I speak to people outside the prison wall about the kindness and sensitivity I see in these men, I am met with disdain, outrage, anger, even name-calling and threats.
Now, keep in mind that these threats are not, “I’m going to kick your ass,” but more along the lines of “you’d better watch out, those guys will turn on you and kill you in an instant.” Sure, they could, but very rarely are attacks unprovoked and, I have found that when I greet them with compassion, they respond in kind. But the hate and abuse culture in the prison is deep and generational, and yet so unnecessary.
On social media, I have been called “libtard,” “bleeding heart,” “ignorant,” “soft,” “stupid,” and “retarded,” to name a few. I have been told that I should just throw away the key and leave those animals in there to kill each other. Yet, statistics say that 95% of those animals are getting out and will be our neighbors.
And this is according to our laws, in place, right now. The way I see it, if we don’t go in there and teach compassion, forgiveness and kindness, we are going to get exactly the kinds of neighbors we deserve. What’s more, we are perpetuating the cycle, just as they are perpetuating the cycle of abuse, lack and gang violence on the inside.
It is like we cannot even see the hamster wheel of cruelty that we are on, let alone realize that we are running out of breath, trying to keep it going.
I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know this much. When I meet my students everyday with kindness and compassion, I am met with the same. When I smile at them, they smile back. When I greet them cheerfully, they do the same back. When I ask for grace because I am unwell that day, they grant me grace, in abundance. When I ask them to meet me on the field of education, half way, they work harder, so I don’t have to walk as far.
Yet, as soon as an officer comes in and is rude to them, calling them “inmate” and using a tone of voice that makes my skin crawl, I see them revert back to anger, frustration and even fear. Something as simple as tone of voice will send anyone into a fight or flight response. Who is that even helping? What good did it do to speak to them that way, when there are so many more alternatives?
At the end of the day, I have been called every name in the book for my stance on how we treat our inside guys. I have been made fun of, ostracized at staff functions, and have had “more than I can count” conversations about how I need to be careful or they will play me.
But I will not cave. I will not give in.
I have seen Marianne Williamson speak at two events in my hometown and both times, she has encouraged us—even challenged us—to put our compassion into action. We must, as fellow human beings, demand that our other fellow human beings, be treated with compassion. And we must continuously teach those afraid of compassion that it isn’t a weakness, but a strength to go in and face someone who is in the midst of expressing their darkness, with kindness and gentleness and love. If the roles were reversed, we would absolutely want the same for us and our loved ones.
I love Buddhist teachings. I love them because they encourage me to be strong in my love; to hold steadfast in the face of fear. But there are some days when standing strong alone gets a little lonely and feels harder than I expected. And those are the days when I have to remind myself of what Amanda Palmer taught me, that night I saw her.
She said, “If you can, you must.” Thank God for Amanda Palmer.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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