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Monday Musings: instead of polarizing, find compassion

Today I am writing about compassion. I am writing about compassion because I am tired of watching bitter social media arguments, media pitting opposing viewpoints against each other, and humans attacking other humans. When views are polarized, compassion seems to go out the window. And I am not immune to it. I am not writing from up on some high horse. I have also struggled to find compassion for some individuals and viewpoints. It is far easier to blame, criticize, judge or return hate with hate. Showing compassion when we are polarized can be difficult, and yet that's exactly when compassion is most critical.

I believe when anyone expresses hateful views or behaves in ways that seem cruel or unloving, it is because they have become disconnected from themselves. They have forgotten that at their core they want and deserve nothing more than to be seen, heard and loved. When we become disconnected from ourselves, we inevitably become disconnected from others. We stop seeing the good in all our fellow humans. Instead, we pick and choose who is 'good' and who is 'bad'. But the minute we start categorizing people, we've lost touch with our shared humanity. Compassion is what brings us back.

Compassion is rooted in a belief that, at our essence, we are all inherently valuable and good. We may not show up that way 100% of the time, but even in our worst moments and amidst our worst behaviours, at our core is a human who wants nothing more to be seen, heard and loved. When humans don't feel seen, heard or loved, they develop all kinds of coping mechanisms. Some of us shop, drink or gamble to excess. Some of us lash out with anger and hate. All of them, and I mean all of them, are coping mechanisms. It's just really hard to remember when we see and hear things that are so very opposed to our own beliefs. It's even harder to acknowledge when others' words, action or behaviours cause widespread pain and suffering.

Yet when we respond to hate with criticism, anger or more hate, we don't make matters better. Judgment, criticism, anger and hate inevitably cause people to feel threatened, and when we're threatened we often double down on less effective coping mechanisms. I've yet to meet a person who responds positively or changes their viewpoint when they feel threatened. Back and forth arguments, judgments, criticism or anger only deepen feelings of separation from one another, when all either of us really wants (even if it's only unconsciously) is to feel connected to one another.

Compassion is truly the antidote.

I can feel some of your eyes rolling. Hear me out, though, because we may not be thinking of compassion in the same way. Compassion gets misunderstood all the time. Compassion is not accepting behaviours and viewpoints that divide us, nor is it a tacit agreement with another's viewpoints or actions. Compassion isn't even understanding someone else's actions, words or behaviours. Having compassion for others also doesn't mean that we avoid taking action to contribute to a better, more loving and inclusive world.

So what is compassion then?

Kristen Neff writes that: "First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering... Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”)...Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience."

Compassion is uniting. Compassion recognizes that there is suffering and fear beneath words and behaviours that we cannot understand and that seem purely hateful. And wherever there is fear, there is an absence of love for self and for fellow humans. Compassion recognizes that others are expressing their fears, even if it's in ways that we don't agree with and that can be highly damaging to the collective consciousness. Compassion means noticing all of this suffering even if we don't think the person has any reason to be suffering.

Beneath what I label as hate or ignorance or downright awfulness is a human being who does not feel safe, loved, or heard. Whether I think they should feel otherwise doesn't matter. Responding with hate, criticism, judgment or anger only reinforces their feeling unsafe, unloved and unheard. This is likely to amplify the behaviours we don't like rather than quell them. Compassion is the ability to see the light in every human, no matter how far down it may be buried, no matter how much that person may have lost touch with it. If we can recognize that light exists in all humans, they might start to see it for themselves.

If I've lost you, that's okay. If you're saying 'no but we need hateful people to know they're wrong', that's okay. I still have days where I notice myself lashing out at anger and hate with anger and hate. Compassion is a practice, and our compassion may be tested more often than we'd like. But it's still our choice.

How can you start to cultivate compassion for even the most incomprehensible (to you) viewpoints and actions? I like to start with reflective questions:

  • When you see something that triggers you, gets you angry, makes you want to fight back or lash out, ask yourself: What might it be like to feel the same way as that person? What might it be like to feel that hateful or fearful? If I were in that state, what might actually help me feel less fearful or hateful?

  • What makes it easier for me to label this person as stupid, ignorant or outright evil? What makes it harder for me to see the humanity in this person?

  • Recall a time when you showed up as the worst version of yourself. What caused you to show up that way? How did others respond? Were there any responses you found helpful to shift back to the better version of yourself? What can you learn from that to cultivate compassion for others?

  • When have you felt truly fearful in your life? How did it change the way you viewed the world? How did it change your behaviour?

  • When have I been able to show compassion for someone who saw things differently than me? What made me choose to extend compassion to that person? How can I bring that compassion to other situations?

  • Have you been in a situation where someone verbally attacked or relentlessly argued with you? If so, how did you feel? How did you respond? What impact did it have on your relationship with that person?

Dig deep and find your inner compassion. I know you have it, because I know we all have it.

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