You can beat the compassion out of a child. Whether the means be physical, emotional or by example, you can raise a kid to not much care about the rights and wellbeing of others. We’d have compassion and concern for that child. But what of the adult that child becomes? At what point do we cut him loose and say, we don’t care about how you got here; you’re on your own now, and you get all the blame that’s coming to you? At what point do we throw the switch from caring to blaming?
It doesn’t matter how the dog got that way, a vicious dog has to be put down. Right? Do we look at each other the same way? Somewhere along the line, did we lose faith in redemption? We act like we believe that the soul is corruptible beyond retrieval. And when someone is deemed to be beyond that point, one way or another they are written off. Rubbed out.
It probably sounds like I’m talking about out and out street criminals. And I am. But not only. It’s like Woody Guthrie sang, “Some rob you with a six-gun. Some rob you with a fountain pen.” Selfishness and callousness toward others occur in every demographic. Street crime is obvious and sometimes close to home. White collar crime is not so obvious and often goes unnoticed by the average person. And if we are aware of it we can become so accustomed to it that we lose interest. We can get worn down and just figure nothing can be done about it. And when an exceptional case does hit the papers, we see that the wealthy and well-connected are, in effect, above the law even when the crime is one of violence that would land any of the rest of us in jail.
I think that it is injustice that gives rise to anger. There is injustice all around. As far as I know there always has been. So I ask myself, do I have a point of no return for the unjust? Am I so angry with some people that I am ready to write them off? What behavior is beyond my forgiveness? And here is a point I want to make – compassion does not presuppose forgiveness. They are different things, fellow travelers perhaps, but different things. So is there injustice so vile that I cannot find compassion for the one who causes it? Some things leave me so disturbed that I just can’t. This only proves that I have work to do in order to live in accord with my values.
Living in accord with our values can be one of the most difficult things we ever do. Or try to do. When I don’t, it isn’t because I don’t know what I’m doing. It isn’t because I doubt what I believe in. Sometimes it’s just too hard, and I can’t quite get there. Or I simply react to something. Mindlessness, in other words. Lots of ways to stumble.
But I expect this. I know I have work to do, and that I’m going to miss the mark at times. I think that would be the case for any of us who are this side of enlightenment. I don’t let myself get distracted or discouraged by it. So, in real life, what do I do when my elected leaders act like goons? Or worse yet, when my friends and relatives vote the wrong way and support the goons? First of all I have to remind myself that it doesn’t help my compassion practice to call people goons. That’s the first thing. I stay with it until the dehumanization passes. Then I pledge to myself to do better next time knowing full well that I might not.
But this is about intention and effort – not achievement. If we focus on accomplishment at some unknown point in the future, then we neglect the present moment. And it is the present moment – and only the present moment – where we can do anything at all. Attachment to the outcome to the neglect of the present moment effort is a problem. It leads to an all-or-nothing state of mind. And that is a relatively useless oversimplification of life.
So how do we move us all toward justice when the odds against success seem really long? The first thing is to not get paralyzed by long odds. We take up the action that is available to us that is consistent with our values. On that path, the odds are irrelevant. We don’t throw our values over the side because we calculate that we can’t keep our integrity and still win. This is the very injustice we struggle against. The rationalization of winning at whatever cost; the drive to defeat and dominate others; the lie that there are people who are less than we are. This is the value system of cynics and tyrants. Acting in accord with our values is easy when it’s all rainbows and unicorns. It’s when things get rough that we find out how strong our commitment is. This is when we need to be very clear about what we value.
We have tools. These are tools that work. They’ve been proven time and again. And they can be difficult to use. I have in mind patience, understanding, courage and compassion, and you can probably add others. In the hands of a master these are powerful tools. For the rest of us, we need to use them as best we can. The master wasn’t always a master. Some of us are already good with these tools, and those who are can show the way. The rest of us can pay attention and do our best. Really do our best.
I think about how important my relationships are to me. I don’t want to lose any of them. I never give up on a family relationship. I try to understand. My life experience is such that I can usually put myself in the other man’s place. This makes using my tools easier. And when the other’s actions are so foreign to me that I can’t step into their shoes, I take it on faith that somewhere, somehow we have some common, human ground. This can be very difficult to do. But degree of difficulty isn’t relevant. Nothing can keep us from making and sustaining an effort to realize our common humanity. That’s what is relevant.