A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of control over the workings of our family.
In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo. I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.
I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.
Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.
Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.
Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying. We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise. All of us fall into that. It’s human
So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering. Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.
This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.
Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.
Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.
My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable. During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering. And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.