Easy to be hard

Dolat Abad

  Photo courtesy of Mira Pavlakovic

Forcing ourselves to conform to others’ expectations, or deciding just how far outside the mainstream we can tolerate living, is tough. We are each susceptible to the fear of being devalued or excluded. Appearing unusual is a source of pride as well as a reason for apology.

All of us are alien to something that could enrich us, too confident in our familiar terrain, unwilling to risk being disconcerted. The best writers expose what it’s like to be that other person who seems so unrelated to us and yet is essentially the same.

Like many Americans, the poet Robert Bly is fascinated by Islamic culture and, in particular, a form of poetry called the ghazal, which originated in what is now Iran. Bly is ever philosophical, and the forms and parallels he chooses are intentional. These are the closing lines of his poem “Stealing Sugar from the Castle”:

“You’re a thief!” the judge said. “Let’s see
Your hands!” I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.

Poetry, scripture, photography, film… If we can see, then why does compassion make us feel at risk?

14 thoughts on “Easy to be hard

  1. Sarah Jo Schlosser

    I love the juxtaposition of sentencing and joy there! That was tasty…

    I don’t know the universal answer to that question, but compassion has only made me feel at risk for the last two years. Prior to that, compassion was something expected, and now compassion is a weakness where someone bests me and steps on my soul to get where they go to.

    I still desire to practice compassion, but it’s roughly on par with burning money for me…where’s the line between doormat and compassion? And does it matter about the doormat if the compassionate person never feels slighted?

  2. Robin Mizell Post author

    Jo:

    Each time I glance at the caged canary, I think of you. Your messages are always pleasant surprises.

    Perhaps when we’re able to be gentle to ourselves, compassion for others is more available. It’s somewhat counterintuitive. The practice of balancing give and take is not effortless.

  3. karyn pierce

    maybe i’m just a simple person, but giving compassion for others has always been easy for me, and i’m harder on myself than anyone else has ever been. i’m wondering where the fear might come from..or the idea of being a doormat. are these concepts linked to forgiveness and reward? in forgiving the unforgivable we are somehow made the fool, and if we need to be rewarded by our acts of compassion and are not, then we are made the doormat? to me, the act of giving, and this includes giving compassion, has been a part of the journey. it’s about me, a part of me, and its mine to give. even the thought of reward is too tied to the destination, which is basically not mine at all and therefore not in my control. if i had to worry about the outcome of my giving compassion, now that would make me afraid, very afraid!

  4. T.T.Thomas

    If I’ve got it right, compassion literally means a sympathetic, perhaps empathetic, too, consciousness of another’s distress combined with a desire to help alleviate that distress. I’m not at all certain, though, that it’s compassion that makes one feel at risk so much as it is a presageful understanding that some human natures will attempt to benefit from one’s sincere concern. But every recipient of our compassion must be evaluated against the backdrop of the unique feelings that made us responsive to that recipient’s distress.

    If we generalize from the specific to include the world at large, we rob ourselves of the times, even if it’s only one time, where our compassion was received with gratitude pure, no ulterior motives, no wishing to take advantage of some goodwill and parlay it into much more.

    The fear that one will be unable, or unwilling, to continue feeling compassion in the face of those situations where the response from the recipient is less than pure, ought not to be a fear of compassion, I think, but rather a very healthy regard for the old adage that what people think of us is, quite literally, none of our business, in that existential way that allows you to be the compassionate you, and some asshole to be the consummate asshole.

  5. Robin Mizell Post author

    Karyn! Thanks for joining this discussion. Your sound comments offer a crucial perspective.

    Rewards are hidden in the virtue of compassion. We feel good about it, and it gives us the power to influence. However, the effect we might anticipate in exchange for our generosity is not always achieved, at least not immediately. So, we rely on the rationale we describe as karma or paying it forward or, as you say, not worrying about the outcome.

    It complicates things when we try to ensure the benefit of caring about others by being selectively compassionate, which is effectively discrimination.

    T.T., maybe you can explain this better than I. Compassion needs to be tempered with prudence and self-respect. The currently fashionable expression is defending one’s “boundaries,” which, on a grand scale, is a topic on everyone’s mind and a subject of national debate.

  6. T.T.Thomas

    Robin said:

    It complicates things when we try to ensure the benefit of caring about others by being selectively compassionate, which is effectively discrimination.

    T.T., maybe you can explain this better than I. Compassion needs to be tempered with prudence and self-respect. The currently fashionable expression is defending one’s “boundaries,” which, on a grand scale, is a topic on everyone’s mind and a subject of national debate.

    The only explanation I can come up with is a continuation of the one I started with: I really don’t think we’re talking about compassion here. Enlightened self interest, maybe? Self-protection, perhaps? Compassion is a word that describes at least one emotion, but usually two. I do not see it in and of itself as an emotion. The emotions would be caring and an urge to help. I don’t really think we feel compassion. It is the word that describes the feelings, and where, appropriate, the gestures or actions of helpfulness that are born when we care.

    I keep going on about the definition because I think the difference between caring and compassion is purely the difference of feeling versus feeling and taking action, both. As such, caring seems to be an end in itself, whereas compassion is caring with action to alleviate the distress (or whatever) of someone else. And inherent in that compassion is the thought (however hidden, however subtle, however unaware we may be of it initially) that a result will accrue from the combination of our caring and our action. I care when I watch a movie. I have feelings. When I see a really sweet person up to their neck in problems, I care (have feelings) and I want to do something (take an action or actions to help relieve their distress).

    Stay with me here, because I’m actually going somewhere! No human being takes an action without some thought of result. By definition, an action is taken to achieve something. And this is where Karyn’s postulate that one must use the journey of the action rather than the ultimate end result of it becomes so important.

    We cannot control other people. Additionally, how they respond to something, like our compassion, for instance, is not an exact science. We think we know, for instance, that our compassion was met with an ungracious demand for more help from the recipient, but are we sure? Let’s say we are sure. This is not the destination. This is part of the journey. The other’s person journey is different from ours. Their journey may be about learning not to be greedy, how not to take a foot once an inch is given. Our journey may be about respecting our capacity for compassion sufficiently enough that we replace it with simple caring when the response to the compassion is, in our minds, something we no longer wish to deal with or be around. We decide to care at a distance. No more action to help the person alleviate their distress.

    The problems arise when we attempt to dis compassion because the inherent expectation (of some result) did not happen or did not happen the way we thought it would or need it to. This is not a problem germane to compassion; it is a problem relevant to knowing the difference between caring and compassion and how to go between the two with ease and no loss of self-respect and dignity and no future fear of our ability to be compassionate.

    I think it is no accident that the word passionate is part of compassionate. Caring is the emotion, and, frankly, it’s a pretty inexpensive one. Compassionate people move caring further along the continuum by taking action. Having done so, however, one has to be prepared for all the uncertainties and vagaries, excitements, fulfillments, etc., etc. of the journey.

    If that’s not the case, if that’s not what we’re prepared to explore and experience, then I don’t think we’re talking about fearing the risk of being compassionate. I think we’re talking about fearing the risk of not being compassionate. If so, then that’s a different post!

  7. Robin Mizell Post author

    T.T.:

    You’re absolutely right. If only you could be less concise. (laughing) Thanks for explaining how we’re motivated by the anticipation of a result, although we may be unaware of our own expectations until they’re unmet.

  8. Sarah Jo Schlosser

    Thanks to all! This post and comment stream were helpful to me determining my own boundaries of compassion and caring.

    The difficult part at this point is filling the compassion well back up so that I am ready to take action when needed. At the same time, these words will guide me…

    Thanks, Robin, for writing the post that got the ball rolling…

  9. mike of concrete

    Hmmm.

    Forcing ourselves to conform to others’ expectations, or deciding just how far outside the mainstream we can tolerate living, is tough. We are each susceptible to the fear of being devalued or excluded. Appearing unusual is a source of pride as well as a reason for apology.

    I’m riffing here completely away from compassion and into the life of an outcast, or a feared outcast. As a Concrete Level Four (cf. “cult”) you know what I mean.

    Breaking your sentence down into phrases, each of which deserves its own paragraph (uh-oh, this will be a TT post):

    “Forcing ourselves to conform to others’ expectations” — is societal as well as personal. You can’t wear jeans to work in some jobs. In others, you can’t wear suits. I choose the trivial because the non-trivial is hard, but you can see where I’m going.

    “or deciding just how far outside the mainstream we can tolerate living” — is more of a macro statement. Let’s say you’re gay. Are you closeted? Laissez-faire? Queer and proud? Still following you…

    “is tough.” Yeah. I’m 100% on board with that.

    “We are each susceptible to the fear of being devalued or excluded.” We have some influence over the set of people with this power. No, you can’t slap a peace officer and expect not to land in the slammer. But you can, say, stop fearing the Wrath of Mom at some point. For some this is easy, for others it is a journey.

    “Appearing unusual is a source of pride” — within your group… or even outside. Consider those like yourself who even write about Islam. There are thousands, maybe millions of people who would have self-censored themselves here, fearing the spectre of the U.S. Do-Not-Fly list.

    “as well as a reason for apology” — outside your group — if you go outside the boundary of how much rabble-rousing you want to do.

    Anyway, like Jo, thanks for helping me get some thoughts to gel. It didn’t look much like Jell-O to you, but to me, I just got me some good thick chowdah.

  10. Robin Mizell Post author

    Rabble-rouser though I may be, I did not expect this post to provoke such intense responses. When I wrote it, I was thinking of the son/brother my neighbors lost, the paths people take, and the costs of conformity and rebellion. It may not be evident, but the preceding post is related to this one. The minister who gave the eulogy guided listeners, seemingly effortlessly, toward compassion. Each of you has vividly demonstrated, however, that the appropriate words are far from effortless. To find people who share this sensitivity to nuance is a great pleasure.

  11. Sarah Jo Schlosser

    Robin–

    I thoroughly enjoyed the previous post as well…so much so that I blogged on it…I just got a little antsy with my response to this one that I didn’t make it back to my page.

    :)

    Thanks again…

    Jo

  12. Robin Mizell Post author

    Jo:

    I’m glad you’re back at it, and I linked to your blog so readers here can find what you said.

    Do you know Longfellow’s “Haunted Houses“? This is one stanza:

    Our little lives are kept in equipoise
        By opposite attractions and desires;
    The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
        And the more noble instinct that aspires.

  13. Sarah Jo Schlosser

    The most beautiful and most shameful parts of my life lie true in that passage of verse, my friend. Much like my duels of my devils and my better angels…

    Nature and nurture, and I don’t know which parts of the verse are the devils and the better angels. I’m not meant to know, that much is certain.

    By the way, spent the weekend with my brother, and it wasn’t long enough for each of us. Not long enough for me because I miss him acutely, and not long enough for him because he missed this place acutely. We were standing at one of the docks in Half Moon Bay and he was feeling particularly homesick, so I told him a story of a man and a boat. Needless to say, when he and his girlfriend dropped me off at my apartment he left with Kevin Patterson in his arms. I think it will do him much good, as his balance of joy and aspiration is much like mine…

    Always,
    Jo

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