Orienteering 100: Compassion is our Compass
Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. Psalm 119:77
Since the election, psychologists report that their treatment agenda now includes addressing a palpable and perpetual societal angst. The trend seems made up of sadness, grief, fear, anger, frustration, and pronounced worry about societal catastrophe. I’m there myself. I find it very easy to feel lost these days? As I watch the news, as I talk to friends and members in the community, I feel like the path ahead is overgrown and impossible to find. But what do we do? Do we sit down and accept our fate? Do we find a point of light that will always help us find our way?
When I saw a kid in the scouts, we used to do something called orienteering. We were given a map and a compass, with a few reference points and clues, and we raced along unfamiliar terrain to reach a sequence of checkpoints. There was no path. It was entirely up to the team to find the way through the forest. In order to choose the best possible route, orienteers look at the characteristics of the terrain and make quick decisions as they race to the checkpoints. I need some spiritual orienteering right now, because I feel like I am racing in uncharted territory, pulling the weight of the world without a map and compass. I feel like I cannot find the fixed reference points I counted on before. Where will we find those reference points? Today I want us to think about a tool we have to help us find our way. In orienteering 100, we all need to get out our compass and figure out how to use it.
Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, was asked, “What is the sign of civilization that you have discovered that gives light and life to a culture?” The person who asked the question thought maybe she would say, “Well, it was when we discovered a clay pot that someone formed and molded.” Another would’ve thought, “Well, maybe it was a fish hook. That’s when civilization took hold, or maybe a grinding stone, an example of a larger way to be fed.” But Dr. Mead said something that took everyone off-guard. She said, “The first sign of civilization that I know anything about is a healed femur.” That’s the big bone that sits above the knee. “When we discovered that there was a person whose femur had healed we knew that someone else had taken care of that person, that that individual could no longer hunt or gather, and so someone else had to do those things for this individual, and because of that must have been a community spirit.” It was, she said, “the burgeoning of compassion in civilization, and compassion is the evidence that a society is becoming a civilization.”
I love that! Compassion is what makes us advance as a civilization. Compassion is what begins to identify us as sophisticated creatures. Compassion is what gives direction to our lives. Compassion is our compass.
And compassion is in short supply. Compassion literally means to suffer with another. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that compassion should be qualified. Conditional Compassion is an American way of thinking. We’ve been taught there are limits to compassion –only those who deserve help should get my attention. The word “deserving” masks an ugly philosophy, an idea that certain people (and certain people only) have it coming. They deserve whatever happens to them. And this attitude is ultimately based on nothing more than irrational double standards. Take for instance the idea of the “deserving poor” in our welfare debates. The deserving poor are those who are poor through no fault of their own, either because of illness, accident or age, or because there is no work available for them. The undeserving poor are perceived to be poor because of laziness or personal problems like addiction. American society has decided that the undeserving poor don’t deserve much help. We are told that we must be willing to step away and let those who have dug their own hole suffer the consequences of their misconduct.
When we set up dualities like deserving and undeserving, it leads to questions about entitlement and rights. Are both the deserving and undeserving entitled to medical care? Are both the deserving and undeserving to food and shelter for their children? Do both the deserving and undeserving have a right to experience well-being and safety? Are we entitled to find work? To earn money and to keep the money we earn? Only when we learn to manage this balance between our own needs and those of others can we have genuinely satisfying, intimate relationships with other people. Only when our compassion directs us to rethink who’s in and who’s out, who gets care and who does not, only then do we begin to find our way.
The Chinese are among the first people to have a recorded history of using a compass for navigation, on land and on sea. These first compasses relied on a natural magnet—a lodestone—to point in a consistent direction to set one’s bearings. The Chinese words for lodestone literally mean “loving stone.” Apparently the French word for magnet also means loving. It has to do with the power of attraction. Our compass of compassion is a magnetic force that guides us through the influence of attraction along the path of love.
Here’s what I think. I think I should not have to decide whether someone is worthy of my compassion. My compassion is too important for that. Compassion is my compass. Compassion points me in the right direction when its offered unconditionally and without judgment.
Here is where it gets really hard: To have compassion we must believe in the ultimate goodness of human nature — to believe, as Anne Frank said, “that people are really good at heart.” We have to decide to love above all else — above our egos and pride, above our own fears and insecurities, and above our own hatred and hostility. We must fight the urge to lash out, even when there are truly legitimate reasons to do so.
I am trying to view the current political situation as a symptom of an ailing society. We as a collective force, must treat the illness. In order to treat the illness, we have to listen to all segments of society as they describe their symptoms. Some of those symptoms may be real. Some may be delusional. No matter what, we can take the opportunity to learn something from each other. Our politics, our media, even our churches are full of vitriol. We must never go there. No name calling. No swearing at those with whom we don’t agree. No ratcheting up arguments. No mockery. We make a commitment not be complacent and to never be silenced. But we can be reformers and revolutionaries and still listen with compassion and respond to faulty logic with kindness and respect.
I am all for acts of public resistance against those who seek to solidify their authority by obstructing the rights of others. We must speak truth to power. I also heed the warnings of both our historical political commentators and our spiritual ancestors: revolt and resistance that serves the motive of the individual ego can lead to violence and set up the resistors to become tyrants themselves. Today’s revolutionaries may become tomorrow’s dictators. Only when resistance springs from a commitment to the salvation of the other are the most courageous acts of solidarity born.
In The Compassionate Life, His Holiness the Dalai Lama helps us understand the nature of compassionate resistance. “Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.”
Ego-driven resistance feeds polarization. Other-driven resistance disarms it.
Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving of that which I value? I confess, those are difficult questions for me to answer. I have deep anger and fear right now. I must resist the enemies I make in my own heart if I want to resist the hate in the world. I must resist violence without becoming violent. I must resist the ceaseless din of division by re-connecting and listening deeply, on the most local level, to the voices of struggle and pain in my community.
Compassion is my compass. I must use it to help me move in the right direction, courageously.
Courageous Compassion means loving everyone, touching the pain without first mapping out the consequences; embodying love in action to those who offend us, to those who have hurt us, and to those who don’t deserve a second chance (or a third or fourth); turning the status quo upside down with a commitment to love; confronting unjust family systems, religious systems, and economic or political systems that offer great gifts to insiders while pushing others to the side. In Christ’s Reign, there are no insiders. No outsiders. We are all one nature, one flesh, one grief, and one hope. If we fail to love, we fail in everything else.
Over the next weeks, I will train my heart to listen to people at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the gym, at the office, in the neighborhood, and the people I see as I’m stuck in traffic. I will give myself permission to be inconvenienced by their pains. I will let myself be moved by compassion that is free from any strings. Who knows, these small acts of other-centered love might just feed an uprising of peace when each of us becomes engaged compassionately in our community and our world.