“This is not a defect, it’s a flavor of the Absolute.”
– Jay Michaelson
As I’m writing this, it is December 2020. We’ve been socially distancing for going on 10 months. It is reported that an American is dying every minute from COVID-19 right now. And it appears as though the next few months could be even bleaker.
Having compassion for each other should be a slam dunk. After all, it’s a hard time right now and we are all having a similar experience, so shouldn’t it be easy to “suffer together?” In theory, yes, but as we all know, division seems to be at an all-time high.
I recognized it in myself this past election season. As I would run through my neighborhood and see political signs for the “other team” in a neighbor’s yard, I would feel this brew of unpleasant judgment and hostility arise in me for my neighbor, who is a person I have never really met, but has done nothing but wave and smile at me in every interaction that we’ve had from afar.
What is that about? Is that person not a human who experiences human suffering just like I do? Does he not get scared or sad or feel joy just like I do? Will he not be separated from everyone he loves just like I will? Why do we so easily feel compassion for those who are close to us and why is it so hard to bring forth this feeling for those we do not approve of?
I think the difficulty largely stems from the myth of the “self-made man or women.” This is an idea that the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris often champions.
The gist is that we mostly believe society is made up of humans who are largely responsible for their own beliefs and personalities. Based on that premise, it’s possible for people to be something different than what they actually are. And if they are being something different than what we THINK THEY SHOULD BE, then they are “doing it wrong” as humans.
So the impediment to compassion is that this person believes what I have deemed to be wrong or acts in a way that I think they shouldn’t AND they could or should be different from what they are. Thus, I judge them or make them my enemy as opposed to seeing our common humanity.
But let’s look at this. Think about the person growing up in the hollers of West Virginia. Is he or she going to have the same beliefs regarding “God, Guns & Country” as the person growing up in one of the burroughs of New York City? Probably not, but why is that?
It seems to come down to the two factors that make up who they are: their unique genetics and their unique life experiences. Those ingredients of who they are have combined in a way to produce a unique human recipe and in either case, circumstances have created who they are.
They did not pick to have their unique genetic make-up and all of the ramifications of that make-up, such as intelligence, temperament and personality patterns. They did not choose the family into which they were born, the community in which they were raised, the healthy or unhealthy beliefs or experiences to which they were exposed, the school they attended, the friend group that they had to choose from and the nearly infinite other factors that comprise their conditioning.
As Eckhart Tolle said and I am paraphrasing, “If I had your genetics and your experiences in life, I wouldn’t be like you, I would BE you.” There are no other players in the ball game.
But wait, what about the choices that they have made in life!? Didn’t they consciously make certain choices which have impacted who they are as people? According to Robert Plomin, geneticist and psychologist, even our choices such as what music we listen to, the risks that we take and whether we choose a friend group who likes to party or study are dictated by our DNA. Our unique genetic programming steers us toward certain life choices.
So if that is all valid, what accounts for our differences? So often we get stuck there, not looking past the differences because we are blindly believing the premise that they “should or could be different.”
But what if we assume that they are what they are and focus on our common humanity? Would compassion come easier? Would it be logical?
Here are a couple of ways to encourage this to sink in.
Start with yourself and then expand out to loved ones, friends, a neutral person and then an enemy:
- Are they a natural result of genetics and conditioning? Does it actually make perfect sense why they are the way they are? Despite how aversive they can be, are they no more defective then a tree growing crookedly? Is the tree only defective because I think trees “should be straight”?
- Despite outward appearances (narcissism, repression, etc.), does this person have the common human experience of feeling emotional, mental and physical pain? Is she fighting some kind of battle right now even if it’s not identical to my own?
- Just like all humans, does she want happiness and want to avoid pain? Even if I think she is doing a shitty job (and maybe she is because she is causing pain to others), is she simply doing her very best to attain the very thing that I’m attempting to attain, which is well-being? And maybe her methods of attaining that well-being are just less effective and even causing her more pain?
Pick the person with whom you have the most difficulty and visualize him or her as
- A very small baby being held and cradled as it looks up into the eyes of its mother;
- A little child laughing or playing without a care in the world prior to conditioning working its magic;
- A very old person, frail trying to walk up the steps or lying on his or her deathbed.
Wish these people well, wish them peace
- Wish them an end to their suffering that may be causing other human suffering. Picture yourself breathing out a white light of well-being that engulfs them. Recognize that this is an act of kindness to yourself just as much as it is to them.
What if I could access this when I need it? What if I could see that my neighbor is not a “bad person” or his political beliefs are not objectively wrong? What if instead, I recognize why we have different beliefs and I assume that we are both trying to attain the same thing and are both actually a “movement of the cosmos,” actually cut from the same cloth? How would that affect my own well-being or the kind of role model I am for my kids or the kind of world they grow up in?
Wouldn’t it then be logical for me to intentionally foster the ability to “suffer with” my neighbor as he journeys through the inevitable ups and downs of his life?
If you are struggling right now, reaching out to talk about therapy can help.