I’ve given up on universal love. Perhaps it’s because I love my wife and family and have never been happier that I can finally let go of this pipe dream.
In my religious days I tried very hard to be a good boy and love everyone. It sounded fine in theory, but the fact was, people annoyed me. Again and again I found myself faced with two bad choices: to deny my feelings and pretend to care, or to accept them and not care at all.
I’m not as cranky as I used to be but still, I can’t imagine a world in which everyone loves each other. Something in the pit of my stomach says it would be weird. Without disharmony, how would we enjoy harmony? With universal love guaranteed, who’d bother with personal love?
Honesty provides the mental clarity without which compassion is profoundly incomplete
Having made that awful decision, I discovered something curious: I now care about people more than ever. It’s as if love’s one thing, compassion’s another. I guess they’re not connected, even though they’re always pronounced in the same breath. Anyway, I feel more honest now.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t surprised recently to see a poll rating compassion number one in a list of good human qualities, head and shoulders above all others. As I feared, honesty lay close to the bottom, unglamorous and unnoticed. It made me frown. Honesty provides the mental clarity without which compassion is profoundly incomplete.
The flip side of honesty is denial. The strangeness of human intelligence means that we can hide from ourselves and cloak our own motives. A suicide bomber denies the pain that actually motivates him, convinced instead that he acts for God.
To feel compassion for others is to recognize
your humanity in them, and theirs in you
Denial underlies everyday miseries as well as great evils. It enables us to stick our head in the sand, see what we want to see and ignore reality. Because of denial we pretend that our feelings don’t matter, that we’re good when we’re bad and bad when we’re good. For thousands of years it’s led us to believe that war is the road to peace, that killing is good. We know better, yet still we justify self-deception with easy rationalizations that wreck our judgement and destroy our peace.
Compassion is not an act of love but of acceptance. Its power lies in its ability to transform the mind that nurtures it.
Honesty is not negotiable when it comes to our feelings for others, so let’s be clear. Compassion is not an act of love but of acceptance. Its power lies in its ability to transform the mind that nurtures it. You don’t need to love or even to like the object of your compassion. However, you do need imagination. To feel compassion for others is to recognize your humanity in them, and theirs in you. Universal love is something else: it’s idealistic and abstract. True, it’s also appealing, but is that really what you feel? Do you love everyone you meet, or are you trying to be a saint?
This is brutal honesty. I know it scares people, but the higher qualities of the human mind cannot be scripted. There are no spiritual formulas. Honesty, compassion and love are not just ideas. You can talk about them and believe in them all you want, but in the end they’re things that you do.
There exists a pervasive, passive attitude that ‘soft’ qualities like love and compassion, respect and concern, are self-evident and have no need of examination, as if all that matters is being warm and fuzzy. That’s a mindless blunder. Compassion without clarity is a pale shadow of itself.
We all feel bad for the victims of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who shot and killed sixty-nine people one afternoon in 2011. Had you watched my face that day you might have thought I was expressing compassion, but in fact it was fear. I could have been there, but wasn’t. I might have been bereaved, but wasn’t. I patted my body and limbs, relieved to be whole and alive. As the facts came in, the feeling morphed into sadness. What suffering! What tragedy. Those poor people.
Compassion means ‘to feel together with’
All this is very human. It’s good, caring and decent, but there’s more. How about the shooter? How does he feel?
Are you shocked? Repelled? Who the hell cares how he feels?
Indeed, is the point of compassion to better understand the human condition, or is it to judge? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can we afford to confuse the two?
I am not confused. I detest Breivik’s actions. At the same time I try to understand them. Compassion means ‘to feel together with.’ There is no judgement in there, no taking of sides, no love and no hate. It’s a doorway out of the confines of my own attitudes, a way to understand beyond the self-centred perspective that contains, protects and blinkers me. Compassion is the greatest of all virtues because it enables us to step into a much vaster reality. It’s not easy. It’s scary.
My attempt to ‘feel together with’ Breivik isn’t the least bit warm and fuzzy. Honestly, it’s rather sickening to wonder whether, in a different time and place, that might not have been me. Compassion enables me see how he morally insulated himself, how he rationalized his actions, how he rearranged his self-image into one of martyr and hero.
You can’t deny negativity and admit the full scope of life
Of course I can’t match his thoughts. I have no way of knowing how close I might be to what actually happened, but that’s not the point. I’m not exploring his mind at all, but my own. I’m probing my full potential. It gives me insight into my own denial and its perversities. It’s unpleasant, but it’s true.
New Age gurus love to point us towards our ‘full potential,’ but who remembers that inhumanity is part of it? If you’re determined to be positive at all costs, to see only the good in people, to believe absolutely in success, health and longevity, you’re censoring whole chunks of your full potential, a good half of it in fact. You can’t deny negativity and admit the full scope of life. To try it is to set yourself up for disappointment.
It’s high time we stopped writing off the Breiviks and suicide bombers of this world as if we’re a species apart. How much more clearly might we then understand the twists and turns of the human heart? Who knows, we might even stop sidestepping evil and find the courage to face it head-on, to speak up and act before it becomes monstrous. Our missteps may be trivial compared to theirs, but they’re not of a different nature. Like us, these people are motivated by the basic human need to feel accepted, to be recognized for what they do. Like us, they’ll rationalize however they can and deny whatever they must to get that feeling of acceptance, even if it’s entirely imaginary, even if it’s perverse.
If we can relate to that, then we should. Only by understanding ourselves can we change in the ways we want.