Compassion is to be awakened to the fact that we share this life. Compassion is not kindness or being a nice person. It is not pity, sympathy, mercy, empathy, or charity because those things require that we look upon another as not ourselves. Do we see ourselves as pitiful? Not usually. Compassion is a broad experience of life. In fact you cannot give compassion, you can only be it. I said to a group of entrepreneurs, “If you were to develop a kind of compassion in which there is a shared sense of how we live and therefore a shared outcome, being a tycoon, or mogul or speculator would not come to mind. Those positions require you to see yourself outside of the people you intend to serve. An entrepreneur who recognizes their place in the circle of humanity will deliver an idea of that feeds humanity rather than exploits it. The entrepreneur is not looking to be exploited. True? Do you want to give more than you want to receive? Do you want to increase a hunger that is insatiable in people or a hunger in which people can feel as satisfied as you do? Is what you are offering in alignment with a continued sharing between folks or just one begging and one giving, no recycling of the gift?
A participant at a conference on social action and yoga raised her hand. She talked eloquently about her struggle as a person of color to be compassionate for the leaders of our country despite their platform of hatred. She also expressed a desire for compassion for people who believe themselves to be superior because of their white skin.
Another person spoke to me on the phone of her fear as a black woman. She was afraid that the police might pull her out of her car and kill her, or that someone one might decide to douse her in gasoline and burn her as she had heard in the news had happened to another black woman. She went on to talk of her fear and I listened, noticing the same fear in my own dark/queer body.
And then you hear often, “Let’s take compassionate action.” What do we mean? How does it look?
Let me share a story. As it turned out my father would be my only hero. This man I would never get to know through his ideology or opinions because he was as silent as a Benedictine monk sequestered in our house as if it were a monastery. It was as if his countryness was trapped inside his bloated belly and mouth of tobacco stained teeth. Yet, I still chose him.
I chose a man who couldn’t read, whose English was gobbled up into the thick Creole accent that lay beneath his tongue. It was difficult to understand him. And many thought him to be ignorant because of such. Still I chose him.
I watched the corners of his mouth turn up into a smile just before he was going to tell a story of a time when black folks couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t, were not supposed to do such a thing. And then the way he clasped his hands to contemplate, I grew angry at the amount of love he gave a world that refused to see him as human. And still I chose him.
He carried my sisters and me under his gaze of protection, never understanding the ways of the City, but he had heard stories of what could happen to black children. He made sure our house was painted and the lawn was cut to ensure continued protection by appearing as good, clean citizens. He waved at all kinds of folks. Smiled. And I chose him again. And again.
I chose him because he had never been chosen. And if I could do this for him, choose him that is, blow the specks of dirt that may have landed on the powder blue lapels of his suit, then we would have simultaneously been freed from our suffering and we could share the joy of our living together. My act of compassion towards him was not to save just him but to save the both of us, our family, our community, our society. It was a kind of compassion based in a deep interrelationship of survival.
What I have witnessed in the last year, more than ever before is that those who greatly suffer, those who are not considered worthy of love by others ask constantly how can I love anyone or anything when I am hated or when I hate myself, or hate what other people are doing? How can I love in such fear and rage? How can I be compassionate? Why must I have compassion when I am suffering so? Why does it seem that the right thing, for some of us, in the midst of suffering is to find a place in our hearts to love it?
What is it really we are to do in the realm of great suffering?
When we consider compassion many of us are looking to disrupt hatred. The great teachers, sages, medicine folks, and prophets of the past disrupted suffering in such a way because most of them had suffered greatly for who they were in the world. Their compassion like their suffering was intertwined with everything and everyone. Their compassion grew from intimately knowing suffering.
Compassion is not something in which you say a few words or take an action and you’re done. Compassion is a lifetime awakening to the nature of suffering. You can’t just do it or be it. This is the reason for many of us our distress, anger and confusion persists when we are trying to be compassionate.
What is going on? We make an effort to be compassionate or to experience compassion without the wisdom of one’s own suffering. Without having honed the wisdom from one’s own suffering compassion becomes a shallow place of condolences, apologies, or unwanted sympathy, sorrow or worry on the part of those suffering.
I could not just feel sorry for my father and say that I was experiencing compassion. You can’t just feel sorry for Muslims, black and brown people, or even feel sorry for those who hate. The full experience of compassion requires wisdom.
What do you know about the nature of life, the nature of being embodied, the nature of being? Do you have transcendent wisdom that you can rely upon in your compassionate action?
We can use anger as an indicator that it is time to deepen our understanding of life as it is. To NOT stand outside of life, observe it like a movie, point, become fearful of what is being projected at us. When we say, “Stay woke,” perhaps it means to remain awake to the fact that we share life. If we can understand this, an experience of compassion unfolds right in front of us.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel