Tag Archives: compassion

What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.

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Identifying Predators

Last week I blogged about a very uncomfortable situation involving a poet. On that post, there’s a long conversation with someone who wanted to make the case for empathy. Neuro-divergent people have trouble with social cues and can come across badly – was the gist of it.

This is indeed a fair point, and having dealt with all kinds of situations where that’s been an issue, it’s something I’m alert to. If someone is handling things badly because of how their brain is wired, I don’t want to make things harder for them. However, it is really, really important that this does not become a way of letting predators off the hook. Compassion should be kind, but if that ‘compassion and empathy’ ignores a real danger to a person, or minimises abuse, that’s not helping at all.

I’ve yet to meet a person who wasn’t neuro-typical who wanted to use that as an excuse to creep people out and leave them feeling anxious and threatened. Although no doubt that happens too, because no group is free from people with bad intentions. Most people who aren’t good at social situations don’t want to have other people feeling threatened and afraid. However, predators will use any cover they can get, if we let them.

I invite you to read this very difficult blog post about Pagan Predators, and ask how many of those might have been excused as people who were not neuro-typical, should we choose to apply that logic. Making excuses is something often done by well meaning people who want to not have to challenge creepy behaviour.  How do you tell if someone is deliberately creep or just not coping? Especially at the early stages when they were just getting warmed up? For me, whether or not they are mortified if there turns out to be a problem is a pretty good indicator.

In this blog, pay particular attention to the guy in the tent who can’t hear ‘no’ and ignores boundaries. We don’t know what’s going on with him, but whatever it is, the behaviour is inexcusable just the same. Compassion has to extend to everyone. Ignoring creepy behaviour in case it comes from a place of neuro-divergence is not a responsible choice.

http://sarahannelawless.com/2018/09/28/sexual-trauma-in-the-pagan-community/

We aren’t doing anyone a favour if we let them cause harm because they can’t tell the other person isn’t interested. You aren’t doing neuro-divergent people a favour if you present them as largely unable to tell when they might be totally out of order – that’s a dreadful assumption that does a great many people a gross disservice. It’s a way of perpetrating ideas about divergence that actually promotes prejudice rather than challenging it. I’ve left the comments on the original post, should anyone want to read them.

 


It’s all so easy in the New Age (and why that makes me want to punch people)

Sometimes I read New Age stuff – don’t judge me, work requires it now and then. I am struck, over and over by how easy it is all supposed to be. Just say your positive affirmations, cut out the money attraction symbol and stick it in your wallet. Know that the universe loves you. Buy a very expensive rainbow unicorn Atlantis faerie guide object and never worry again!

I see the New Age memes go by on twitter all the time, the ones that say you have the power to change everything, fix everything, make everything good. And I wonder how that’s supposed to apply if you live in a war zone, if your child is dying of starvation, if your family are lost, if you are in the sea having fallen out of a refugee boat… I wonder what the homeless and the hungry are supposed to do in terms of positive thinking. I wonder how much a paper charm in your otherwise empty wallet helps when deciding whether it’s going to be heating or eating.

I come back to the same thought, over and over and over again. That if your problems are small, fixing them is easy. If you have resources – time, money, health, education, security, safety – then you probably can do much of what you want to do if only you believe in yourself. If you live in a country where your sexual identity is punishable by death, less so.

It troubles me because it sends such a clear message to anyone who can’t magically fix their life in five minutes. It sends a message of blame. You aren’t positive enough. Like attracts like, so you deserved it. The war. The injury. The bereavement.

I can’t bear how cruel that is. I hate the way in which it allows those who have a lot to feel no responsibility for those who have nothing. I hate how like attracts like thinking acts as an enemy to compassion. I hate how this whole attitude is a barrier to making real change. Not everyone can wish themselves out of their problems. Many people need actual help, real interventions, support, aid, care, food, heat, water… And not some smug, entitled git telling them it’s all about karma or that this is part of their life plan.


Looking hard at compassion

‘Compassion’ is one of those words easily chucked about that does a good line in making you sound spiritual and enlightened. I think it’s always worth poking anything that can be wafted about easily to make sure we’re doing what we think we’re doing.

Is the compassion something that lives in our heads, or is it translating into action? We can feel compassion for the hungry, the homeless, etc, but if it’s just about our feels, it does nothing to alleviate suffering. Telling ourselves we are feeling compassion may be a way of letting ourselves off the hook, assuaging guilt without actually doing anything useful.

The ‘I’m feeling so compassionate towards you right now’ stance can also be a way of disempowering the other. Here I am, all big, spiritual, shiny and wise feeling compassion for you because clearly you need it. Smug compassion can be more about making ourselves feel bigger than the one who needs our compassion. If it takes that shape, it does no good at all. Compassion can be a re-framing of pity, and pity only drags people down, it never lifts them.

‘I’m being compassionate towards myself’ can be a fantastically effective way of re-branding selfishness. It can be used to justify self interest and to protect us from having to look at the things which might otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. Ironically the people who most need to practice self care are the ones most likely to be hauling themselves over the coals, and the ones who can easily announce their compassion for themselves are, from what I’ve seen, the ones who have least need for it. And if you’re the kind of overthinker who perpetually tries to second guess their own motives, sorry about this paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves, unless we do that as a way of not being responsible or honourable.

I admit that if I encounter someone who talks a lot about how compassionate they are, I become rapidly sceptical. I’m interested in people talking about how to practice compassion effectively, how to do it more and better, but that’s got a very different swing to it. I’m also much more interested in people talking about what they do that helps, in whatever way, at whatever level. How do we make things better? How can we be kinder to each other and take better care of each other? Not by poncing about announcing how very, very compassionate we are, that’s for sure.

(And yes, if I was a better sort of person I might know how to feel compassion for the people who have to wave the idea of their own compassion about in this attention seeking way, but I don’t. )


Depressed elephant is in the room

Let’s imagine that whenever people got violently mugged, our culture would blithely comment on the bruises and sudden shortage of money as though the victim was largely to blame, and with no reference at all to the mugger. That would seem ludicrous, yet when it comes to mental health, something all too similar is happening.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer published a report which explicitly linked rising mental health problems with work stress. This may be news to you. The papers picked up on some obesity issues in the report and entirely ignored the mental health bit. I only know because I hunted down and read some of the original documents. some mental health problems are entirely chemical. Many are brought about by life experience.

Work stress makes people sick. This is not difficult to ascertain. I watch so many friends being asked to work longer hours and take extra responsibility with no additional money in the mix. With jobs still scarce, no one in a job will risk protest if the demands are too great. Sure, you’ll stay on late tonight, and tomorrow. Sure, you’ll do the job of the full time person who left and isn’t being replaced, and you’ll do it alongside everything you were already doing, because if you don’t, you might not have a job. With the way those on benefits are stigmatised, punished, and pushed deeper into crisis, who wouldn’t be terrified of going there? And if you can entirely hold your mental health together in face of the threats, pressures, humiliations and deprivations of falling into debt, unemployment or both, you’ll be an unusual creature indeed.

There are many implications to rising ill health in your populous. It’s not a viable way to run a country. Depressed people are not resplendent with energy, enthusiasm or innovation. Anxious people often end up with distorted thinking around risk. Having poor mental health does not, in my experience, contribute to making the best choices. Everything gets progressively harder.

Even if you can’t muster the compassion to care for the vast amount of human suffering this causes, there are profit implications. Exhausted people don’t concentrate as well. They make mistakes and cannot work quickly. The more you pile onto a person, the less able they become to do it. We all have limits and we will all break sooner or later. Break a person badly enough and they don’t fix. They become too ill to work – which has a financial cost to consider if you can’t muster any sympathy.

All you can get out of our current approach, is to squeeze some short term profits out of people. Long term, the cost will be high, in terms of broken health and shattered lives, a workforce too ill to work is not going to turn anyone a profit. Push people far enough and they can crack up entirely, which can result in death – suicide, murder or both. It’s not a way to run a country.

The depressed elephant is well and truly in the room. It is large, heavy and crushing people. We have a sick work culture, and we need to be talking more about the brutal amounts of pressure some people, many people, are enduring.  If you’re being routinely mugged by a workplace, know that the bruises (which may be psychological) and the shortage of cash is there for a reason, and that reason is not you.


Diseased Druid

Yesterday I was too ill to make it to the desktop computer, so there was no blog. One of the plusses of being self-employed is that this very seldom happens. When I’m merely a bit ill, I can keep working. That I need to is part of the downside of being self employed – if I don’t work, there is no sick cover. I’m paid for what I do, more often than not, but if I get ill and can’t work for a long period, this is unnerving. Usually I’m not so ill that I can’t push through it.

‘Can’t’ is an interesting word though, and one we all bring into play at different times. I tend to be fairly literal about it – ‘can’t work’ tends to mean fever, inability to actually sit in an upright position, so sleep deprived that I can’t concentrate and the like. I also know from experience that if I have to, even that level of  ‘can’t’ can be pushed. I’ve done school runs on foot, feverish with tonsillitis because there wasn’t any other option that day.

‘Can’t’ is more of an option when you have a safety net. If someone else can catch the critical things that are challenging, it is easier to lie down and quit for a bit. The winter before last, when I had pneumonia, Tom did all the shopping. Long cycle rides in the rain to fetch groceries. A task that normally required us both, he took the extra load, quite literally. But then, there are some illnesses (and pneumonia is one of them) where stoically battling on can kill you.

I marvel at the array of different human responses to discomfort and disease. The people for whom a bruise or a cut is worthy of comment, through to the other extremes of people who push through chronic and even terminal illness because there are things they want to achieve. The worst thing we’ve endured is the measure of what we know we can take, so those who are relatively pain free and healthy tend, in my experience, to make a lot more fuss about minor setbacks than people for whom those small things might be less of an issue than what constitutes business as usual.

Our baseline for compassion also has a lot to do with experience. It’s easier to empathise with someone if you have some faint clue as to what their experiences may feel like. Those who have lived well and pain free, for whom a scrape and a bump is the worst of it, sometimes find it very hard to make sense of the people for whom pain is a constant. And so you can get into situations where the relatively unscathed demand a lot of attention for minor ills but do not take seriously the ongoing suffering of others.

One of the things I notice about people I know who live with pain, restricted mobility and serious ongoing health challenges, is they often learn not to make much fuss. Partly, I suspect, because the baseline for normal shifts over time and with it shifts the point at which it feels worth saying something. There is the fear of being seen as a nuisance, by those who are not suffering and who will be bored or offended by the details. There is pride, and the determination to be independent, as far as possible.

What a person says about their struggles, illness and difficulty, of any variety, is not any kind of absolute measure of what they are up against. We’re very quick to judge each other, especially if there are questions of our time and energy being required to cover for someone else’s illness. It is inconvenient. They may be making a fuss about nothing. They may also be making far too little fuss about a great deal and it’s worth remembering (having seen a few very close calls with other people) that this degree of stoicism can prove fatal.


Hope, not hate

If you’ve been following UK politics in the news, you’ll have been hearing far too much about the ‘success’ of the far right party, UKIP, and very little about how well the Greens have been doing. The media bias makes me very uncomfortable, but that’s an issue for another day. Perhaps in part due to the media hype, a lot of people did vote for UKIP; whose policies include getting rid of maternity pay, making rape in marriage legal, and blaming anyone ‘not from round here’ for just about everything. No doubt some of those votes were in protest against the mainstream, not meant as endorsements.

However, I’ve seen UKIP supporters online. Angry, anti-intellectual, resentful, frustrated, shouty… they do not inspire joy. This is not a party which brings out the best in people, but a party that calls the police to challenge someone who had posted actual UKIP policy statements to twitter. What do we do in face of this?

The temptation is to get angry back. It’s very easy to shout abuse at angry, destructive people who put their fingers in their ears and sing loudly if there’s any risk someone might show them evidence that doesn’t back their claims. I’ve hardly been complimentary in the last few paragraphs, but I’m also terribly aware that these are people. Somewhere in there, they have feelings, and there’s a good chance that for many, beneath the veneer of noisy anger is a deep seam of terror. Life is scary just now. Climate change is terrifying. How much easier it is to be able to blame all the big economic problems on powerless immigrants! It would be even more alarming if we had to look at how those with power are screwing us over. And all the while, those with power are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee as those of us who should have been working together for change are mired in fighting each other.

Getting angry does not cause angry people to magically become compassionate. It doesn’t get rid of hate, but entrenches it. Shouting at people and calling them bloody stupid, does not get many of them to engage productively. I suspect people are going to UKIP under the mistaken impression that this party cares, and is listening. These are people who have every reason to feel that the mainstream doesn’t care and isn’t listening. That needs to change.

In the normal scheme of things we hate people who have personally wronged us, and where we can see a direct causal link between them and the specific wrong. What we’re getting is a truly irrational mass hatred of whole groups of people. That’s not hard wired into any of us but is being constructed, and fed. It would be all too easy to make UKIPpers another hate group for smug people to look down on. Another vast generalisation and condemnation to feed the division and keep us all harassing each other.

Hug a UKIPper. They probably need it. We need hope, not hate. We need to co-operate, not tear each other down. We need to recognise and respect each other’s fundamental humanity – it’s fine not to like each other and not to agree, but that doesn’t entitle us to strip others of rights and dignity. There are some large and real problems out there just now – wealth distribution, climate change, human rights, our viability and future as a species… the more people there are working together to tackle that, the better. Hope not hate means having to work out how not to hate the haters – and that’s going to be really hard. We will not build a better world by chucking shit at each other, we have to inspire each other to do better. There is no other way.

(and, while the media silence is curious, the Greens actually did very well in the local elections).


Communities of care

Life is sometimes very hard indeed. The balance varies for each of us to outlandish degrees. While access to money can ease the other crap into being more bearable, even wealth can be stripped away by misfortune. Nothing is certain. This is why community is so important. It is in connecting with each other, to share the good and the bad alike, that we make life bearable. This can mean exposing ourselves to more pain as we open our hearts to the suffering of others, but it is utterly worth it.

In sharing, we learn, which can make us better prepared for our own setbacks. In sharing, we develop resilience and resources to tackle problems. We develop banks of knowledge and insight so we’re not individually re-inventing the wheel as the same old problems come round again. Very little is new. Death and sorrow, poverty and exploitation, tyrants in power and the commons in peril – I could sing you songs from a hundred years ago that tell all the same stories.

There is an approach that resents and resists other people speaking from this distress. There are many ways to silence discomfort. Ridicule, suggesting it is ‘over the top’ making comparisons to those who are, by some undisclosed measure ‘much worse off’ we can make people in pain shut up. This means we do not have to feel any responsibility for helping them. The consequence of this is to increase social isolation and to increase misery by a number of means. Today I was told that by expressing when I am unhappy and getting support, I have got into a self-perpetuating cycle that encourages me to stay in a place of pain rather than deal with it. Nice one! By this means am I to be shamed into silence, and into isolation, whilst being told I am being helped. It is bullshit, and needs labelling as such. How do we handle, as communities, the people who undermine community? One for another day perhaps.

When we work as communities to support each other, what happens is that everyone who today takes a supporting role, gets to feel useful and valuable. You are holding someone up, this is massively useful and valuable. It also demonstrates your membership of the community, expressing and reinforcing bonds of connection. You know, that when you get into trouble, the same thing will happen – people will rally round with kind words at the very least. There may be useful advice, wisdom, practical help, insight, opportunities – all of which could not have flowed to you if you had not expressed distress and need in the first place.

We all have off-days and periods of crisis. It is part of being alive and being human. If I sit here telling you about how great my life is, because I’m published/married/a Druid/have good karma/think positive thoughts and I create an illusion of joyful perfection, that could easily make it seem that there is a reason why my life is damn near perfect, and your isn’t, and the reason is you. That’s also bullshit, and damaging. If I own my crap, and own that crap happens randomly to us all, you know that I am not somehow magically better than you, and there is no innate failure in you that explains why things do not go so well sometimes. When you own your crap in turn, I am reminded that there’s nothing uniquely wrong with me, I am about as flawed and confused as the next person, and that’s ok. We’re allowed. I’m not faultlessly compassionate or infallibly wise. I make bad calls. We all do.

We are all, also now and then graced with moments of shining awesomeness. If you’re in an alienated culture where you can’t mention the shit, but you dare to mention the glorious success, the odds are some irate bastard will knock you down for that, too. In a culture where knocking people down is normal, anything that isn’t beige and forgettable makes you a target. Just look at how we treat our celebrities! In a real community, there is room for the sorrows and the celebrations, for the triumphs and disasters, for the bad days and the good ones, in whatever mix we get them. There is room to delight in each other, be proud of each other, support, enable, nurture and help each other through good times and bad times alike.

If you’re sharing a word, a thought, a moment, you are part of that community for me and I really appreciate it.


Putting down the baggage

Baggage is heavy, it slows you down and is easily tripped over. I’m finding at the moment that an array of baggage I’d not noticed I was hauling, is making life hard. The baggage announces that things are bound to go wrong because I’m not good enough and will be judged accordingly. It borrows the voices of everyone who has ever ridiculed and denigrated me, to tell me that failure is inevitable. Important things will go wrong, and they will go wrong because I am inadequate, and letting the side down. But then, no matter how well I’ve done and no matter how difficult the circumstances, there have always been people keen to point out how I should have done it so much better, faster, etc. My mistake was to listen to them.

The baggage I carry most readily is caused by feeling that I’ve failed. The mistakes I have made, my weaknesses, shortcomings and insufficiencies are what haunt me. I can often let go of unkindness that has come to me from other people. I can quite often forgive and forget, or find excuses and justifications for them, that lets them off the hook. I let the people who wound me get away with it, and shoulder a bag full of it-was-all-my-fault, and heft it about. Sometimes the weight of these squashes me and I struggle to move.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to be wary. I’ve accepted people who have asked me to shoulder the blame. I’ve been reduced to weeping, panicking distress and let myself be persuaded it is my fault for being weak, emotional, demanding… Those are difficult bags to put down. They grow into you after a while. They have become me such that putting them down feels a lot like tearing my own skin off.

I’ve found the best solution is to pick things over and look for other possible explanations. I know I get things wrong sometimes – we all do. It is important to me to understand those mistakes so that I can learn and improve. Mistakes are key to learning. Someone who cares about me will help me make sense of things when there’s a problem. It’s a very basic manifestation of care, that. I do not want to avoid the baggage by deciding that I am always good and right, because that would prevent me from seeing my mistakes, and turn me into someone who requires everyone else to shoulder the blame. That would not be ok.

So I pick things apart, and I look for the exact points at which my judgement was wonky, or I was working from insufficient data, and I try to make sense of them and see what can be learned. So long as I’m not dealing with people who require me to be innately wrong so that they get to always be perfect, the unpicking works. I can make sense of things, resolve things, do better next time. Sometimes I act in haste or in anger. Sometimes I am not as compassionate as I would like to be. Only in owning and holding that can I move forward and change it. Owning it hurts, always. Failure to own it causes a lot more damage. I have learned that I can own and hold a shortcoming, work through to understanding it and then stop beating myself about the head with it. I do not have to drag every failure behind me as I go. I just have to learn and do better next time.


To be a better Druid

We all develop in different ways and our paths take us each in different directions. No two of us will have quite the same definition of what it means to grow, improve, or whether ‘better’ is even a relevant word to apply. Nothing in nature stays still unless it is dead, and even the dead change. Growth, change, and movement are inevitable then, and choosing the ways in which we do this can be an important part of how we approach our Druidry.

At the moment I find understanding is critical for me in a lot of ways. I need to understand my own journey, and to see how experience has shaped me. There are aspects of self and behaviour that are not what I want, but to change them smoothly rather than hacking at them, I need to make sense of how they formed in the first place.

Understanding other people is of great importance to me, too. When things go wrong, I find I need to know why. I need to understand what created that situation. If I’ve messed up, I need to know so that I can fix it. If someone has messed me about because they were acting out of their own history, fear, pain or similar I want to understand that. I have a better chance at responding with compassion if I know what lies beneath anger, or negativity. I also have a better chance of responding usefully. Some people can only usefully be walked away from, but if I can say with confidence ‘that happened because…’ I don’t have to carry much away with me as I go.

Wider things in life come to be, as a consequence of all kinds of tiny connections, threads, histories and intentions. The more I can see of that, the more able I am to work with the possibilities rather than getting at cross-purposes with others.

I think about everything, a lot. When it comes to the issue of understanding, what I have to do a lot is guess. Analysing someone else’s words or actions is not unlike analysing a poem. You can come out at the end with a really impressive theory but it might be miles away from the poet’s take on things. Speculating about whys and wherefores is an inexact science and I’ve seen people get into trouble because they believed they were better at that than was the case. And of course people change, and they can wait until you thought you had it all figured, and come up with something you did not anticipate. Like the poem, the poet/person might tell you what they thought it meant and that be so far from how you experience it as to be irrelevant.

Relationships with hills and horizons tend to be a lot easier than relating to people. It is enough just to be there. But, people are a big part of my life, and trying to make sense of what happens and why remains key to getting the Druid stuff done, for me.