I once was part of a senior high youth group at church (I was the “adult”). We started talking about compassion one Sunday. I had proposed a literal use of the word compassion – from co-passion, meaning to suffer with. We agreed that to suffer with another would require some degree of seeing oneself in the other and the other in oneself. In doing that we might find empathy for the other in what they experienced. This wasn’t hard to do with loved ones and sometimes even with strangers.
We thought that it could be difficult to feel compassion for the villain. Perhaps difficult because we couldn’t see ourselves in the villain. Or difficult because we didn’t want to see ourselves in the villain. We wouldn’t find any identity with the villain if that meant seeing something of ourselves too aversive to be acknowledged.
Maybe I am willing to try to find some identity with the other, but only when that other is not too disagreeable. Maybe my sympathy is reserved for those who deserve it; those who are at least somewhat like me – or how I like to think I am. No sympathy for the devil.
The world seems full of unsympathetic characters. Human beings do cruel and abhorrent things to one another. And I want to be separate from those who commit such acts.
But one of the persistent teachings in world wisdom traditions is that we are not separate from each other despite how ego might make it seem. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “interbeing.” He says that we “inter-are.” The sense of separateness, the sense that we stand alone is an illusion.
I have to face the dissonance of thinking that I have nothing at all in common with the villain while at the same time believing that humanity is one. The dissonance arises not from my conviction that humanity is one and that we inter-are, but from my clinging to the illusion of separateness. I am of humanity. All of it. To deny that or be unwilling to look with some tenderness at some part of human reality, including my own part, is to constrain my own effort toward wholeness – the effort to become fully who I am.
Suffering begets suffering. And those who inflict suffering also suffer, though they might not think so. I believe that if I could follow the cause and effect of the life of the villain back and back far enough, I would come eventually to some place where compassion and acceptance would not be difficult. [I’m using acceptance in the sense of receiving reality as it is.]
What I describe might be difficult or it might not be. If it is the right thing to do, difficulty is not relevant. And there is the saint within. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, You are already a little bit enlightened.
Sean Corn is a prominent American yoga teacher. She tells a story of when she was recently graduated from high school and had moved to New York from her home in New Jersey. She made friends. And there came a time when there were events that left her upset and with questions about how to regard those events. She asked one of her closest and wisest friends for advice. He said this to her: See the soul, not the story.
This post is a followup to a recent poem, Counting To One .