One evening a few weeks ago, I was sitting in the living room with my wife, talking, and suddenly heard a sharp cry. Something was rushing outside, on the roof and by the front door. I thought maybe it was raccoons, as in the past one had tried to tear out a screen in the upstairs bedroom window to enter the house. So, I jumped up, found a flashlight, and raced out the door.
I didn’t see anything, at first. But then there was a rustling sound around the corner of the building, in the flowers along the uphill side of the house. I shined the flashlight there and saw an adult racoon and yelled at it to leave. It took off up the hill.
Then a whimpering sound came from further in the flowers. I approached cautiously closer and saw a young racoon staring at me. But it wasn’t alone. It was wrapped around another, even smaller racoon, maybe a brother or sister, who had buried its head in its sibling’s stomach. Had the smaller racoon fallen off the roof and hurt itself?
All my anger vanished. This young animal had stayed where it was, silently protecting and comforting its crying sibling. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. My wife, who had followed me outside, said we should leave. She was afraid staying around would discourage the mother from returning. So, we both left.
About fifteen minutes later, once again there was a noticeable rustling outside. The young racoons must have been led off by their mom. I went outside and saw they were gone.
In just a minute or two, I had gone from fear and anger of the coons getting in the house, to empathy, care, fear for the animal family. I realized how my expectations and interpretations of what was happening shaped my emotions and actions. And how universal, how instantaneous compassion can be, if it’s not drummed, traumatized, or oppressed out of us.
And the eruption of compassion helped me see straight or perceive more clearly.
But how do we live and keep ourselves safe if we readily feel compassion for others? Or maybe it’s the opposite? How can we feel safe if we’ve lost our compassion? When we wish others well, when we care, we are constantly greeted by care. We see it reflected in the eyes of others and are thus surrounded by it. When we hate, feel anger, or jealousy, then everywhere we go, we meet hate, anger, jealousy.
A good friend told me the story of a doctor he knew. The doctor lived and worked in New York City but was thinking of leaving the city and profession. He had recently treated a man with severe COVID who had not been vaccinated and who repeated disinformation denying the efficacy of the vaccine, denying the need to wear a mask for his own safety and that of others. And this was only one of several such patients. The doctor said he was losing his compassion. Losing his desire to help others in the face of those who were so closed off and whose lack of care was so toxic to themselves and others.
By hating, we arouse hatred in others. We create dysfunction. Misinterpretation. Because hate is a turning away from who and what we see. We no longer perceive the truth because we push it away with a lie. And then we become dependent on the lie. We define ourselves as part of a unit of animosity and resentment⎼ a me chained to and forever opposed to a you. A hater requires a hated. And we become blind to our blindness and self-definition.
By contrast, truth is not an abstraction or a thing. It is perceived in our way of being, particularly in what philosopher and theologian Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” as opposed to an “I-It” relationship.
“I-Thou” is the “cradle of real life.” There is no deception there, no distance, no qualities but all qualities, no time but all time, just present. All real living is meeting on this level. “I-It” transforms your partner in the relationship from a living, breathing, changing being into an “it,” a thing, a thing living in the past, a fictional monster or saint treated as real. Since the other is fictional, we become fictional, too, isolated in our fictionalized shell.
And once fictionalized, we can never touch the truth of who we are. We feel hurt. But instead of recognizing the origin of the hurt in the way we treat others and think of ourselves, we blame others. Blame the world. And the hurt continues because we’re always looking for the origin of the pain in the wrong place.
In our world today, one of the central disputes of our time is over the nature of human nature and the role compassion plays in it. There are many who recognize its important role in social cohesion, while others, maybe a whole political party, denigrate and deny its reality. Weaken compassion, weaken human beings.
When I taught secondary school, and we researched the health benefits of compassion, a good number of students argued that it, like altruism, was impossible; people act for other people’s benefit only to get a reward. If it felt good, they said it couldn’t be compassion. Others said it was a form of pity, a way to put down those we help. But compassion is not pity, not just empathy or care, but the readiness to act kindly and for another’s benefit. When we try to act compassionately for selfish ends, we don’t get the psychological or other health benefits.
Most of us readily recognize the compassion and love a parent can feel for their child. But research has shown that when people observe harm being done to people they don’t know, the portions of their brains that light up when seeing their own children cry light up for the strangers. It seems we are wired for the potential for compassion.
Hatred, fear, joy, love are obviously all ways of relating, meeting. Some emotions push us and others away, some bring us all closer together. The more completely we can meet what or who stands before us, the more compassion we feel and the more truth we perceive. The more we can perceive how to help fellow beings, the better we can protect ourselves and our world.
Great article…….. question……..who is in charge of whether approval is generated by “I”? Who decides if my hate generates hate in others? How does “I” become hate?
thanks for your teaching, peace [email protected]