I’ve been thinking about how experiences rise and fall, ebb and flow. Most specifically, I’ve tried to keep a finger on my own pulse as it relates to my world (or my perception of it): the news, the dizzying flurry of new legislations and executive orders, targeted violence, stripped protections, growing fear and disbelief in millions of people in this country and far beyond. We could stop there – chat there, argue there, become enemies or lifelong friends there. That’s not where I’m going with this post.
What’s been disconcerting for me is the tone that has developed on social media platforms, and therefore, what it feels like to “be there”. I’ve heard many people express frustration over deepening anxiety caused, in part, by their experiences on social media. They are tired of the anger, attacks, put-downs and strongly stated opinions, which have often been justified as coming from a place of passion or deep conviction. I’ve experienced this, too. But, I’ve also noticed that many have pulled back or shifted focus. What was heated rhetoric for the past year has now become a rolling plethora of recipes, cute puppy videos or catchy memes. Possibly in an effort not to offend or alienate, some choose silence. This withdrawal may be necessary to remain sane, given the fear that rises in some of us.
I love a healthy debate (I know not everyone does). I find the differences of perspective and belief to be invigorating – challenging me, forcing me to rethink long-held opinions, and change (even if gradually). What I find difficult to endure are discussions that are laced with cynicism or anger, or accompanied with what seems to be a lack of respect and compassion.
I stumbled on two articles discussing compassion yesterday. One was a NYT article (from 2/23/17), written by a top-notch journalist, who makes an adamant case that compassion is dead; the other a Times article from two years ago, in which Pope Francis was quoted as encouraging thoughtful people everywhere to consider the indifference we exhibit in relating to “our neighbor”. Both were thought provoking (and I hope, action producing) reads; both men passionate about their assessment of compassion or lack thereof.
Compassion and passion; two strong concepts. Related but not the same.
Passion is a mighty river. Many people are passionate; in fact, there is no shortage of focus on the necessity to be passionate. I don’t disagree. However, the river of passion can be constructive or destructive. Passionate people have committed unthinkable horrors; passionate people have produced life-saving breakthroughs. The white water rapids of the river of passion need a strong shoreline – an unshakable riverbed to contain its power.
Compassion is one of the riverbeds that passion desperately needs. But, let me assure you, compassion is far from weak or passive. It’s much more difficult to muster compassion in the heat of a disagreement than to attack and respond in self-defense. How about these definitions for compassion: empathy, care, warmth, kindness, mercy and humanity. If those seem bland to you, imagine being confronted with someone who violently disagrees with you. Even virtually. Can you produce compassion in those situations? I find it difficult. My inner go-to responses are more like: “Yea, right… play that one out to the end.” Or “who do you think you’re kidding?”
Compassionate people are rare! Dr. James Finley, writer and teacher says: “Compassion is the love that recognizes and [identifies] the preciousness of all that is lost and broken within ourselves and others.” This statement could take a life-time to understand, let alone live out.
Compassion is an expression of love – a love that allows lostness and brokenness to exist in ourselves and others. But my tendency is to try to wipe out lostness and brokenness instead! It’s much neater that way. It makes me feel accomplished. Like I’m making a difference. Or superior. Denying or hiding my own lostness and brokenness is certainly less embarrassing. But allow it to exist? That’s right. It exists anyway – whether we “allow” it or not. There is no way to eliminate being lost or broken regardless of what people tell us.
Okay then, you may be asking: how exactly did we get here? Weren’t we talking about social media and the anxiety produced there? Yes, you’re right. We were. I don’t believe that withdrawal or dis-engagement are the best ways to deal with our differences, divisions and misunderstandings. This just internalizes our pain and anger, and causes further rifts – even if not verbalized. I’m convinced that bringing compassion into an exchange (even one that only plays out in our minds) will go a long way toward (re)gaining internal peace and allowing relationships to heal and flourish. Compassion is a necessary antidote to anxiety.
But compassion is not like a sweater you can quickly slip on when the weather turns cold and threatening. Developing compassion requires practice. It’s work. But it’s work that pays the dividends of hope.
There is a way in which compassion can be nurtured. Creating an internal environment where compassion can thrive requires something of us:
1.) We need to admit that every person on this planet has elements of lostness and brokenness within themselves. Including me. And you.
2.) Recognizing that this is not a curse or something to be eradicated in one fell swoop.
3.) Identifying areas in which we are lost and broken – this may be difficult to do, since we are trained to hide or even deny that these exist.
4.) Approaching others with an understanding that we all carry scars and resolving to mitigate those wounds in others by extending grace. (This is not being dismissive or living in denial, but a way to participate in humanity more effectively.)
I don’t pretend that becoming a (more) compassionate person is an easy task. I know this from experience. But it is a way to bridge gaps between us.
If you, like me, have been distressed by the anxiety you’ve experienced in your environment – either personal or virtual – let’s talk. I’m here to walk this road with you.