A lesson on compassion.
My uncle died recently and a day after I heard that news, a friend still living in the shelter (we both called home for five months), drowned in the river. I am not exactly myself right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about these two deaths. Both my uncle and my friend were two vulnerable humans very desperately in need of compassion. Their lives were filled with an inordinate amount of fear and distress and ultimately, far too many idiosyncrasies to readily fit into an “us” category. It is something I can relate to very much. Their deaths have caused me to consider again the lack of compassion I see in the world. Perhaps their passing would not be quite as heart wrenching if it was not accompanied with the abject loneliness and isolation I know they experienced. A societal rejection I remember too well.
I cannot help but examine that future lonely moment of passing that we are all destined to experience. Can that moment of passing be less painful? I have come to believe that in those final moments and certainly for those left behind, the reflections and accumulated experience of compassion, both given and received, tells us more about that life than any other thing I can think of.
Why is compassion so important? If you have ever found yourself on the receiving end of compassion, you already understand how vital it can be. But I believe it is more than vital, I believe it represents the most stunning essence of what it means to be a thinking, feeling being capable of producing spontaneous emotion in others. It is something that -done purposefully- truly has the power to shape humanity’s future. How we relate to each other and where we find similarities is highly predictive of how much compassion we will see and it behooves us to pay attention to this.
I had what is becoming a fairly common occurrence for many of us, a disagreement over a Facebook post and the tension filled back and forth those can sometimes be filled with. The post was about the Biblical references to homosexuality and the statements made by the posts author could only be described as attempting to encourage condemnation, otherness and the resultant strife and violence these “us versus them” ideological interpretations prescribe.
His sole intent was to reduce compassion but he was blind to his own motives. I generally ignore this type of hatemongering because I am self-aware enough to know I am prone to an emotional reaction that circumvents any teachable moment type stuff. I said something in this instance because this is exactly the sort of thing that made the lives of these recently departed much less than they could have been. So I had to call the guy out, had to suggest he missed the entirety of Christ’s message if he could not see the difference between causing strife and causing acceptance and unity which ultimately facilitates compassion. I lost the battle. One always does with this type of ignorance. But an admin jumped on and said further hatemongering would preclude getting banned from the group. That little moment of back-up provided me with a beautiful spiritual experience. I felt a safety and unity which does not always accompany the role of the truth-teller and it was divine.
In this vast golden age of communication it is critical that we utilize this time to refine our common understanding of what it means to be vulnerable and imperfect and how to love each other anyway. We need to make space for the vulnerable to tell their stories and we need to actually hear them. We can choose to focus on what unites us: respect, kindness, the quest for joy. We can choose to shield each other from hatred and anger and misunderstanding. We can learn the tough lesson that loneliness provides and seek to find common ground. If we spread the task of compassion around, we can accomplish great things and together reduce the suffering we have become either too acutely aware of or profoundly numb to. We all benefit from compassion and love so it makes no sense not to teach this and lead by example in all of our interactions.
My uncle suffered greatly upon his return from Vietnam. I did not see a day go by that he did not battle those demons and try to remain human anyways. I do know he loved me in his own broken way and that I”ll mourn for awhile and wish I’d had a chance to get published and make him proud before he passed. I wrote about him in my book. It’s funny because before I even had it in my head to write this thing, the summer I spent staying in a tent in his back yard in the heart of the city, he made a joke “be sure to put this in your book (heh, heh)” over some or other dysfunctional family crisis taking place. I thought he’d get a kick out of the fact I actually did it. It wasn’t easy to make the man happy and I reveled in being one of the few people that could. I also know that to be free of pain was his greatest desire.
My friend from the shelter was a testament to the feminine mystique. She was the epitome of what I find to be the most profound gift of being a woman, a well so deep and full of love and beauty, just poetry in motion really, and our society has no idea or comprehension how to handle someone like this. We have a tendency to label her an “other”. This ignorance is too often coupled with a contemptable shame based abandonment. From my perspective she felt others’ pain too deeply. She cared too much. What she needed was the love, compassion and support of a tribe. The communal flow would have served a soul on fire such as hers in a remarkable way.
It was a loss to humanity that we missed the gifts she brought to the table because help was too little and too late. Far too often we miss souls like hers who ride along the edge of that forest people still can’t see because they are too busy arguing about the trees. I know that edge she clung to for so long. I cling to that precipice myself far too often. It is (and was) always compassion that brings me back and continues my faith in the power of hope.
How much less pain would these two souls (and the many they leave behind) have experienced if they had received the amount of love and compassion their unique brokenness commanded? Love and compassion are not separate virtues; they are two arms of the same indescribable experience. The opposite of which is fear and hate. So let me share my reminder to take tender care of the big-hearted and the vulnerable, the ones mired in loneliness and battling demons we’d never wish to have unleashed on earth.
For the visual learners out there: It is in our love for each other, in each act of kindness or prayer of compassion, that a little beam of light comes out of our invisible lonely metaphysical and metaphorical heart realms and passes to that other. And in that flash, the spark of the in-between, I believe God sees. He sees and He adds to it and the light gets bigger. That light helps us to see, to understand the purpose of wisdom, to know the difference between a truth and a lie. It helps us release fear and thereby reconnect.
May you all be blessed while keeping the torch of compassion lit in a world too dark with greed and ego. May we all know the meaning of the word “home” when we look into each other’s eyes.