Crimes Against Ourselves, Compassion for All
by Jennifer Paros
True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves, but from realizing our kinship with all beings.
~ Pema Chodron
It’s a story that’s now a speck in the rearview mirror of the news, but most likely one to be remembered: A paying passenger pulled off an airplane against his will, resisted and, in doing so, sustained a concussion, lost two teeth, and broke his nose. Due to overbooking and the airline’s need for seats for staff, the man was selected as one of four to leave. When he refused, the aviation police were enlisted. The tape of the event was dramatic – the absence of kindness, striking.
I felt compassion for the passenger. Though he could have potentially prevented his own injury, the situation seemingly cast him as the victim, which means the others were the culprits. But compassion is more meaningful when it goes beyond who we think is deserving of it and acknowledges something essential and shared in all of us. If compassion is just about caring about those we deem innocent and good, it ceases to challenge us to call forth the best of who we are. Compassion then remains a shallow exercise, rather than a deepening experience.
In a Leslie Stahl interview with the last living Nuremberg trial lawyer, 97-year-old Ben Firencz says he’s learned that “War makes murderers out of decent people.” Though central in prosecuting 22 Nazi commanders of Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads who killed over a million people outside of concentration camps), he recognizes it’s unlikely those who killed would ever have done so had there been no war. In their minds, according to Firencz, they were acting as patriots in the interest of their country. Still, they were tried for crimes against humanity; acts they did commit.
Firencz’s insight can help us broaden our experience of compassion without vindicating or absolving brutality. The point isn’t just to feel compassion for bad individuals too, but to comprehend us as a collective, having experiences under overarching frameworks of thought – be it war or any other. Constructs can give rise to cruelty or kindness. From this perspective, we recognize the players in relation to the play. In choosing compassion for all, we do not negate personal responsibility. Action is understood as a byproduct, not necessarily of one’s inherent decency or lack thereof, but of an active basis of belief. And all of us are still, ultimately, responsible for the convictions to which we subscribe.
All great artists draw from the same resource; the human heart, which tells us we are all more alike than we are unalike.
~ Maya Angelou
Understanding that a villain can be a “decent” person is meaningful in life and in creating art. As writers, if we are aware of the character’s deeper good, what he holds as true and right, as well as his actions, we make compassion accessible to our audience. I have never been without compassion for a character I’ve written and would feel dishonest creating a person for whom I could feel no kindness.
Writers can offer access to the (metaphorical) hearts of their characters and direct us towards the most generous ways of thinking. All works of art serve to focus our attention – acting as meditations on various states of mind through language, sound, and sight. As individuals, in daily life, how we inhabit and express ourselves also allows us to contribute our own awareness that might encourage others to remember this shared goodness – or to forget it.
When we consider the idea of compassion for all we look for something in us capable of loving unconditionally, and in that inquiry lies our introduction to an unconditional love waiting for us. Self-compassion is a part of compassion for all. I encourage those I love to be kind to themselves because their goodness is clear to me and I would feel remiss if I didn’t remind them of it. Though I sometimes falter in remembering my own deepest good, ultimately I return to that knowing. It is in the return trip that I find myself wishing the same for others.
We are most likely to look for kindness in the treatment of each other when recognizing how we are alike, rather than how we are unalike. Awareness of a shared goodness, whether obstructed in its expression or fully evident, makes compassion both natural and inevitable. We are built to be kind, and anything else is a distortion of our true nature – and a crime against ourselves.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.