Why All the God Talk? Part 3 of 4: Selective Compassion

[This is the third part of a journal entry that was originally written between October 30th – November 3rd, 1997 (start with Part 1: The Ancient Automobile here). You can read what Today Jay has to say about what Yesterday Jay wrote in the Post Script. Enjoy!]

I recall reading a short essay by a monk who helped people in a hospital. He told a story of a little girl bring brought in near death. Her parents had been killed by pirates, and a pirate had raped and beaten her and left her for dead. She did die, but not right away.

The monk felt sympathy for the girl, then in a burst of insight he did something seldom done: he felt sympathy for the pirate. He realized that the man had been born and raised in a situation where this behavior was what was shown to him and demanded of him. He realized that he could have become that pirate just as easily as he had become a monk. He saw that if we could look upon that child as a innocent victim of circumstance, those same eyes could look upon that pirate as an innocent victim of circumstance.

Can you honestly say that, given another’s situation, you would not have done the same things, not been guilty of the same sins? Have you not got your own sins, justified or at least understood in your own mind? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Of course, he who is without sin would not cast a stone at a man.

It is all too easy to believe that we would do things differently than another in their shoes. Of course we would, we have a completely different psychological makeup, completely different experiences. Yet what if you had been born into that situation, with the same tools to work with? Can you honestly say you would have taken the higher path your whole life? Have you in your situation?

We are all so very different, and with very good reason. I cannot possibly understand all the things that have shaped you into the person you are; you cannot possibly understand all the things that have shaped me into the person I am. This is why I can’t completely see your perspective, nor you mine. You have not lived my life, I have not lived yours. Your decisions may seem totally preposterous to me, and vice versa.

I can honestly say that, given who I am, I would never rape and beat a little girl and leave her for dead. I cannot honestly say, that had I been born that pirate, that I would see through these same eyes. I would not be who I am. That pirate could just as easily look at my life and say that, in my shoes, he would never have committed my sins.

I see levels of life that people around me don’t see. I know this because attempted conversation falls flat on its face. I don’t believe myself to be highly intelligent or evolved because of this, however . . . I wonder what levels there are that they’re seeing that I’m missing. I wonder what levels I’ll be seeing in twenty years that I don’t see now.

Post Script

Talk about foreshadowing . . . well, it hasn’t quite been twenty years, Yesterday Jay, but we’re
close enough. Here’s what I think:

I warned you that there was a tangent coming. It’s really not, however, if you look at it the right way. Of course, it’s pretty easy to say the only thing you talk about is God if you happen to think everything is God.

I remember reading this story. I don’t recall the details or the writing style, but I do remember that it shook me to my core. Compassion was an important subject to me, trying as I was to come to grips with my own spirituality. In the years since reading that story, another aspect of this complex subject has shown itself to me and in me time and time again.

It’s not uncommon for a person to think of themselves as compassionate. Most folks have some degree of compassion naturally, but most of what I see practiced is what we’ll call selective compassion. It’s the compassion that the monk felt for the little girl, when your heart goes out to someone who is clearly being victimized. It’s easy and natural for just about everyone to feel that kind of compassion. I know that psychopaths and sociopaths don’t feel this naturally, that’s why I say most people. Besides, the conditions that often precede psychopathy causes a disassociation that almost proves the point I am trying to make in and of itself.

It’s not real common for folks to feel bad for people that they don’t like or don’t understand. It can be way easier to put myself in the hero’s shoes when I’m watching a battle between obvious good guy and obvious bad guy. You can even tell me what kind of horrible things happened to make the bad guy bad, and I’ll still root for the good guy.

It’s easier for me to understand why someone would choose to hunt and capture (or kill; in the shows I watch, they usually kill them) bad guys than it is for me to step into the bad guy’s shoes and feel the pain that pushed him down this path. When I see how popular torture is on television shows in the United States, I realize I must not be the only one.

Friends and loved ones often get different levels of compassion from us than strangers or each other, but they often get it when they do something involving someone other than us. It’s often difficult for men to practice a natural kind of compassion towards women, just as it is easier for most women to have compassion for other women. I don’t pretend to understand what it is to be a woman, any more than I can expect a woman to understand what it is to be a man. It’s a worthwhile challenge to get to know the opposite sex as much as possible, since a deeper level of understanding is the first step to having greater compassion for them, but that understanding will always be second-hand.

Speaking of gender, how much can a straight person really understand a gay or bi-sexual or trans-gender or trans-sexual person? And what about race? We all have such different experiences based on our outward appearances and natural inclinations, it can take a special effort to lift our heads from our own circumstances and really immerse ourselves in another’s experience. It’s no excuse for people being prejudiced, but it is a fine example of how many people can be hurt by some people practicing selective compassion.

How hard is it for a straight person to imagine being gay? Pretty hard, judging from some extremely horrifying laws in some fairly civilized countries. How difficult is it for a white person to imagine being born black, or for a man to imagine being born a woman? Pretty goddamned difficult, according to history. Why is that? Selective compassion almost starts to resemble psychopathy when we don’t tell our friend’s spouse that he’s cheating, or when we band together politically to ensure that one group or another has greater advantages or lesser rights. How often does a couple break up and inform all their friends: “this was one hundred percent each of our faults”? Not very often, although it’s been true in every case I’ve seen.

When choosing friends, I’m pretty likely to pick people who have character traits that I also have. I like friends who come from a different background usually, but my path rarely crosses someone with a radically different upbringing. Sometimes it does, though, and I’ve gotten a chance to talk with people who didn’t own a pair of shoes until they were adults or worked all day for a dollar. These are the kinds of friends that you don’t complain to about when they get your white mocha wrong at Starbucks or when your car breaks down.

Perhaps it’s the easy route, pointing out what’s wrong in a beautiful thing. Just like so many concepts that are poorly defined, compassion seems to do the most damage when it is practiced selectively. Without compassion, we have barbarism, and that’s no fun at all.

With selective compassion, we get varying degrees of mental and emotional and physical damage that can be justified as being for the greater good. That’s how it always works, though; the kindness you do to yourself or even in the advancement of some greater good will have negative consequences on someone else or many someone else’s . . . if your work is done from a place of selective compassion.

Real compassion is a huge and far-reaching thing that takes us out of ourselves. Real compassion can be practiced from a place of charity or friendship or professionalism, but it is difficult to live full-time. Some perspectives might view the average American’s lifestyle as clearly narcissistic and obviously sociopathic, but the average American probably wouldn’t. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? There is no right or wrong, only perspective. The issue with deliberately practicing compassion becomes a question of: how far can you pull back without losing your identity?

Of course, mysticism would often have us believe that true compassion only comes when the ego is annihilated and personal identity is shed once and for all. This seems more like a good starting point for a new kind of selective compassion than an actual viable lifestyle choice for most. How about when we address an issue, we give both sides of the story our complete compassion? Obvious victims can still be acknowledged as victims, but we don’t have to torture or murder or cage the bad guys for them to recover. How about we figure out what’s going on with each individual that’s standing in the way of their happiness and help them fix that? From the standpoint of real compassion, there are not good people and bad people; there are just people.

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