Compassion is as essential to nonviolence as dehumanization is to violence. From Latin, it means “to suffer with,” or to paraphrase religious scholar Karen Armstrong, “to put yourself in the shoes of another, and take the journey with them.”
While it does not always feel that way, (compassion fatigue, anyone?) compassion is one of those infinite resources we possess, where the more we give, the more we have at our disposal. Though, to put it simply, it is, like love, a difficult, but valuable skill. The first step in cultivating compassion is breaking down the assumptions we have about it.
I have been involved in many conversations where people honestly feel that their capacity for compassion is limited, quite finite, so it should be reserved for the people who “deserve” it. On top of that, there is the sense that if you are compassionate, you are naive, soft, unrealistic. Or again, that compassion has to be limited to those who can claim the label of “victim.” These are all misconceptions that arise when we fail to see compassion as something we can, and need to learn how to develop and use.
We can carefully nurture compassion in one another. Does a child learn compassion to animals if the family dog is ignored, or even hit? Does a CEO learn compassion if their entire cultural education has told them that compassion is unnecessary, or just a manipulative strategy, and at worst can come in the way of what matters most: profits?
Gandhi is asking us to open our hearts–”as wide as the ocean.” We have to include everyone in our compassion–victims and perpetrators, those who exploit and the exploited. When we do, we will find new insights into making our nonviolent efforts more effective, whether it be our daily actions or mass movements.
Reflect on your beliefs about compassion and how you put it into practice in your life. Have you imposed limits on it somewhere that you can get rid of?
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org