Living with Compassion

Message 1 - 


I’m on a bus. An old man enters… unsteady on his feet. A young man sitting comfortably barely looks up from is mobile phone and is clearly not about to get up even though he’s in a seat that’s marked as priority for people who have trouble standing.

The anger rises in my throat… Standing near both of them, I glare at the seated young man, hoping my noiseless irritation will somehow get to him and make him move. I’m sending intense waves of disapproval. Nothing!

Having concluded that he is a selfish, unfeeling lout without the slightest bit of human kindness or empathy, I seethe. I am convinced that there is absolutely nothing he and I have in common. No way to communicate. I fantasize of barking angrily “hey - you selfish git - how about getting off your arse and letting the old man sit down?”

But then, something shifts. Maybe it’s the meditation I’ve been doing. Maybe it’s the nice lunch I ate. More likely it’s the fact I have known enough sorrow in my life and in others to recognise that we are rarely what we seem to be on the surface.

I start to think what his life might be like. I start to imagine he’s texting to comfort a bereaved friend. I start to imagine he’s writing an email desperately trying to secure a job so that he can support a child or a parent or a disabled sibling.

The anger recedes. In its place is possibility. The judgement fades. In its place is the potential for understanding.

I quietly say, so that only he can hear, “excuse me… that man looks like he might fall down if he doesn’t get a seat soon.” I say it without judgement - without instruction - as though we’re on the same side - because, ultimately, we have to be on the same side unless we think fighting solves anything.

I can’t tell you how the story ends. It actually doesn’t matter whether he leaps out of his seat apologetically, ignores me, replies with an obscene gesture, or perhaps gestures to show some disability of his own that I had not noticed.


What matters is compassion. What matters is making room for connection. If I can even begin to understand another person, then there is the possibility of understanding, of communication, of cooperation, of peace.

Isn’t this what we each want for ourselves?


“When I am frightened, will you reassure me?”

I might be startled and jump when you approach me. I might turn away. I might run. Will you try anyway?

“If you will show me compassion, then I may learn to care.”

“When I am angry, will you still embrace me?

When I am thoughtless, will you understand?

Will you believe in me, stand by me willingly” 


Will you have compassion? 


Thich Nhat Hanh shows us the full scale of this challenge in his poem “Please call me by my true names.” He invites us to recognise our radical interconnection. We can not separate ourselves from the evils of the world - from the predators, whether human or other. We cannot stand apart and above - judging and condemning. We cannot because, ultimately, we are human and so we can begin to understand. 


We each know pain. We each know anger. We each know thoughtlessness. Our suffering and our weakness, paradoxically, become our strength. Our suffering and our weakness give us the strength to cast away the delusions of separateness.


“If we have no peace,” said Mother Teresa, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a meditation for cultivating compassion. It begins with wishing loving-kindness for ourselves. Then we wish it for others, and finally for our enemies.


Let’s sing it together now.


Message 2 - (about channeling compassion into working for justice)


I mentioned Karen Armstrong last week. She’s the failed nun turned scholar of religions. 

Armstrong has been busy promoting the cultivation of compassion lately. It turns out that it’s not such an easy sell.


“Compassion is not a popular virtue.” She reports. When she speaks with religious people and describes how compassion is the key to acting in a truly religious way, they balk. Armstrong says  that it’s “as much to say what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people?”


Compassion is indeed unpopular. The Dalai Lama goes as far as to say that “compassion is the radicalism of our times.”


The messages we hear most in our times tell to take care of ourselves first, second, and last. We are exhorted to spend our money on more stuff. We are persuaded to spend our time on our own comfort.


What about the suffering? Our consumerist society has an answer for that. It’s their own fault that their suffering. It’s because of their laziness, their weakness, or their lack of intelligence. 


But I know that you have seen through this veil of distortion and rationalization. And yet, compassion does not come easily.


Just about a week ago, an American Mormon bishop tried an experiment. He took on the appearance of a homeless man. He wore a wooly hat, thick glasses, a false beard and a fake scar. Even his own family did not recognise him. And then he went to his church.


The bishop reported his experience: “Many actually went out of their way to purposefully ignore me, and they wouldn't even make eye contact,”


After being asked to by five people to leave the church, the bishop walked up to the pulpit during a service and ripped off his wig, fake beard and glasses.

He heard a gasp from many of the assembled faithful.


One of the congregants later said “I started feeling ashamed because I didn't say hello to this man. He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself.”

What if we try to respond with compassion to this apparent lack of compassion? Although we might want to conclude that the members of that congregation were just insensitive louts who don’t care about anyone but themselves, we also know that such encounters challenge most of us too. Sometimes we get past those challenges and sometimes they cause us to turn away.


When you encounter a homeless person, do you give money? Do you look them in the eye? Do you give food? Do you have a conversation? 

Maybe I’m being too compassionate here, but I believe that it is not often lack of compassion that keeps us from trying to help.

Fear can get in the way. Fear for your safety, fear of disease, fear of not being able to get away from the interaction, fear that our help will actually do harm, fear that this person who seems to be in need is actually just trying to get our horse or our car our our wallet.


But there’s something more. Something deeper. Compassion - especially when we feel helpless - hurts.


I want to offer some words from the author Andrew Boyd. I don’t know much about him except that he published a book in 2002 called “Daily Afflictions.” It’s a send-up of the daily affirmations that tell you everything will be great, love everyone, follow your bliss, and so on. 


And Boyd offers some very realistic wisdom about compassion:

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”


I promise you that better-known and more credible philosophers and theologians have said similar things, but few have said it as well.

Why do we turn away from suffering? Because compassion hurts and it makes us realize we are connected to everything  - and that includes the horrible parts. 


And being connected means feeling responsible. And feeling responsible and feeling like you can’t do anything about it is about as bad as it gets. It’s like not being able to feed your children or protect your partner or ease the suffering of your dearest friend.


So, we do what we can to avoid compassion when it will overwhelm us. I heard someone say recently that he knew that some street beggars actually have nice homes in the suburbs. Really. Rationalizations can help avert the pain. 


Or we turn away. We try not to see. We try not to feel. Not because we are unfeeling, but because we can’t bear the pain of the responsibility we will feel for enormous suffering when we are helpless to do anything about it.


And this would be a very, very depressing message were it not for a very important fact. We are not helpless! Not only can we make a difference every day with a kind word, a sandwich, a bit of humanity…  We here - we hundred good-hearted, compassionate, connected, influential, articulate, and generally privileged people can indeed make a difference.


This is not the time to go into tactics and strategy, but smaller groups than we have initiated and aided in the accomplishment of great changes. The possibility of creating compassionate change is ours if we are prepared to take it.


So, today, let us be ready to begin, together, to turn toward suffering. Let us welcome compassion in to do its work on us. We are connected, one to another, from each one of us here to every other being beyond. Let compassion fill and strengthen us for the journey ahead.