Counting To One – Followup

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 .






6 responses to “Counting To One – Followup

  1. We have a family issue- someone is abused and another family member is the abuser. Yet at one time this abuser was abused herself. So yes it is difficult to remember but true compassion encompasses our enemies as well as our friends. Thanks for this reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, in the wise words of my youngest when he was a two year old in a fury, “I hate all of us.” I guess he felt himself in the web we call humanity. I once examined the idea of loving a killer. It’s fascinating to me when close ones say they had no idea or he was a nice guy….rapist, robber, killer, whatever. I recognized over and over that there were people who did awful things but had sparkling, likeable personalities and other good qualities as well.

    If you are inspired by politics right now I’d say this instead of what Sean’s friend said… look at the character not the actions. People make mistakes and they might be out of ignorance rather than malevolence. We may be souls beneath the skin but that’s not the game we’re handed right now. Our souls were called on to manifest as human beings in the flesh and by that we answer to someone or something as a reckoning. To say look at the soul as if that excuses actions seems a cop out and simplistic to me.

    We can empathize with the enemy if we have compassion. All villains are just like us in many ways. I hope that does not mean we give them a pass. Don’t we hold ourselves to the minimal standard of the yamas or try to? Why ask less of anyone else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you made this comment, Hilary. As for the SC quote, I think it could be paraphrased into your formulation of “look at the character not the actions” without greatly changing the intent of the story/soul advice. And I’m glad to have the opportunity to say, in case of misunderstanding, that nothing I’ve said in this or the poem is meant by me to imply any wrongdoer gets a pass. That is a matter that society works out or not.

      I’m interested in the estrangement from self when we as an individual have parts of our lives that we keep from the light of day or deny altogether out of shame, loathing, self-disappointment, fear and the rest. I’m saying that to deny some part of self is counter to wholeness of self where everything is seen and received – recognizing that work might be needed. And it is from wholeness that we are most fully ourselves and best able to evolve in our consciousness and in our humanity.

      From there I applied this to humanity as a whole, because I am convinced of an essential oneness of humanity. Certainly not a sameness of behavior or belief or motivation or aspiration. I’m trying to get at an essential that I don’t have a word for. If I can take a step back from my own stuff, I believe I can see it without losing site of the suffering we bring about and the reckonings that must ensue.

      What I’ve said in the two pieces isn’t meant as a prescription for the sociopolitical mind – it’s the wrong language. (Although the saintly might be able to maintain this presence.) I was trying to articulate something about brokenness and an evolution toward wholeness. And now that you make me think about this a bit more, maybe I’m implying that redemption is never out of the question. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, my friend. I appreciate it.


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