Originally posted April 20, 2016 as that month’s #1000Speak entry – with a few minor adjustments to the text.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
— Albert Einstein
It’s that time again, and I (surprise!) am only just now starting to write this post, so bear with me while I try to organize the random thoughts jumping around in my head…
I seem to spend a great deal of time these days thinking about vulnerability. And about resilience. The topic tends to turn up occasionally in my writing because, even when not focused specifically on compassion, the need for compassion and understanding is present in other areas – in news stories, in discussing mental illness – or suicide. Or even something as simple as wishing people would understand that not all disabilities are visible. April is a month full of days dedicated to specifically vulnerable groups – autism, sexual assault survivors, child abuse prevention, alcoholism, and several others, which makes it a good month to focus on vulnerability.
“I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics.”
— Albert Schwietzer
I have a great deal of compassion, and concern, for people that fall into any of the myriad of particularly vulnerable categories, particularly children, but (yes, there was always going to be a ‘but’), from the perspective of a compassionate human we need to be certain that we are not selective in our compassion due to internal biases. That we don’t allow ourselves to fall into the, very human, trap of feeling that some are more in need of compassion than others. Our ability to empathize, or even to merely sympathize, will likely be limited to that with which we can somehow identify, or to those that lack the physical, mental, or emotional capacity to adequately care for themselves, and those that lack the resilience to move forward from tragedy. But compassion goes beyond that point. Of course the reality is that we do have to prioritize how we expend our time, energy, money. Unfortunately we do not have endless reserves.
“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?”
— William Blake, On Another’s Sorrow
With a seemingly endless number of disasters – natural and man-made – and the tragedies of war, famine, and acts of carnage, I find myself thinking, too often, about how vulnerable we all are. And how much we all need compassion from time to time. We are all human. We are all mortal. None of us has superhero powers, boundless energy, or the ability to live forever. Our humanity gives us the ability to be compassionate, and it also makes us vulnerable. And, perversely, acting compassionately can expose that vulnerability.
Yet it is easy for us to forget that as we move through our day-to-day lives. Whether things are easy for us, or not so easy, we naturally move through our lives focused on our lives. And we need to do that. And when disaster strikes somewhere, especially somewhere we have some sort of affinity to, we take notice. But that lack of immediacy for us also means that sometimes we see numbers, but don’t really think about the human beings behind the numbers. When the death toll is relatively low, we don’t think about the people that lost their homes in the hurricane/tornado/earthquake/flood. Just as we don’t always seem to understand that the Syrian refugees don’t have homes to return to. Or that combat veterans have a hard time with ‘normal’ after coming home. Yes, I suppose I’ve spent quite a bit of time pondering post-traumatic stress disorder recently. Because for the survivors of natural disasters who have lost their homes, just as for war survivors, and many violent crime survivors (especially child abuse and domestic violence), they have lost the safety of ‘home’. And that loss can never really be recovered. With resiliency, and support, one can move forward and find a new safe place, but it will never be quite the same.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
And so, I try to figure out for myself when, where, and how to help. As we all do. Those that need extra support precisely because they are too young or too infirm. Or chronically ill. Or mentally ill. Or handicapped in some way (seen or unseen). Or any of the ‘isms’ accepted enough to have a day – or a whole month – dedicated to them (and/or a fundraising walk/run). The homeless family panhandling outside of the shopping plaza. The survivors of a disaster. Or maybe just the woman in the store whose baby is in need a a distraction. There are as many opportunities to act compassionately in most of our days as there are people we encounter. And although the ‘isms’ that have their dedicated days help us to remember the special cases, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are all vulnerable humans.
“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.”
— Clarence Darrow