Tag Archives: compassion

What we don’t see

How many times have you seen a dead person, or sat with someone you knew was dying? When did you last have to deal with someone in the throes of total mental breakdown? How about care for an incontinent adult? When did you last encounter someone with serious physical disabilities or learning difficulties? Unless it’s your job to do so, or a close family member has been in this position, the odds are you don’t have this kind of experience at all.

Modern, industrial, affluent culture likes to have things tidy. If you aren’t able to cope with the mainstream it means the odds are you are tidied away from public view. Now, on the one side there’s a lot to be said for having experienced professionals care for people who need extra help – they know what they’re doing. Caring is incredibly hard work, and being able to go home at the end of the day and rest is worth so much – those who look after an ill person at home seldom get much respite. But many people do it, and are very isolated as a consequence, as are the people they care for.

One of the consequences of this, is that when we encounter these kinds of scenarios full on in our own lives, that’s often the first time we have to deal with it. People I know have managed to get into their thirties without anyone they care about dying. Lots of folk only start dealing with the trials and distress of old age when their parents get into difficulty. People who become physically or mentally disabled often do so not having had any prior experience of people in the same situation. It’s frightening. We hit crisis with no points of reference, and no idea of how to cope. We may be the one being shuffled out of the way. That’s a very scary process as well.

Community is about sharing – not just in the good times, but with the harder stuff too. Altruism aside, there are a lot of good, pragmatic reasons for being more involved. If you’ve listened to someone else when they were close to cracking up, if you’ve sat with someone bereaved and grieving, if you’ve kept in touch with someone obliged to go into a home… not only are you supporting them and doing a lot of good, but you are also learning. The hard times are that much harder when you have no idea what’s going on or how to cope. None of us are immortal. None of us are immune to accident or injury.

It may seem like defensive behaviour, moving away from the hard stuff other people are going through. Who wants to hear the doom and gloom stories? Who wants to deal with another person’s grief? It’s all hassle, it’s not our problem. Only it is, and it will be, sooner or later. If we can’t reach out to each other for reasons of compassion, we ought to be doing it out of self interest.

We don’t benefit, as a culture, from hiding away the people who aren’t part of the whole working and breeding system. The sick, the elderly, the troubled… most of us do not have to think about them, most of the time. We are ‘free’ to get on with our lives. Right up until it happens to us. If we weren’t so keen to hide away the ‘problems’ there are a lot of people whose quality of life would improve dramatically. There would be less to fear – it’s bad enough being ill of body or mind without the added fear of social rejection and isolation. We could do so much better with this issue.

Shades of Grey

Talking with my son about any ethical issue, it’s evident he sees the world in clearly defined hues of black and white. The vast majority of issues he encounters, James can confidently identify a right answer, and a wrong one. It is an advantage, for him, being seven. It gives him a certain confidence that adults lose, because all he has to go on is his sense of right and wrong, with none of the justifications, excuses and faulty reasoning we gain in later life.

Being that much older, I’ve learned to see the world in shades of grey. I understand that sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons, that everyone has different ideas of ‘best’ and so forth. That kind of grey scale James is moderately tolerant of. He accepts that everyone makes mistakes, and believes everyone should have the chance to learn and do better. As he himself is learning (and making occasional mistakes) this is entirely visible to him as an issue.

There are other excuses. I didn’t have time. It’s too expensive. I forgot. I didn’t think it mattered. Everyday justifications for failure. James doesn’t have a lot of time for those, I am finding. He expects better of the people around him. Fall short in that way, and he expects an apology at the very least, because to him these are at best explanations, not excuses. When it comes to choosing between right and wrong ways of being, none of the above really justifies a poor choice. Especially when we know we’re not doing our best.

Then there are the more personal justifications. No one is perfect after all. People act out of fear, insecurity, broken trust, pain, grief and a whole host of other unhelpful emotional states. Not with any kind of malice, but because wounded people cannot always see so clearly, their past colouring the present. This is the point at which our discussions get interesting. For James, this remains a black and white issue. He does not perceive any of these reasons as excuses. In part this is because he is seven, and he does not have much baggage of his own. In some ways, I think he’s absolutely right – no matter how grim your past, it is no excuse for mistreating others. However, bad experiences can shape our perceptions and make it hard to see what’s really happening, with wrong action resulting from misinterpretation. There’s nothing to be gained from getting cross with someone whose broken capacity for trust prevents them from seeing you mean them no harm.

Going through life, making our own mistakes and falling foul of others, we get some corners, and clarity knocked off. Once you’ve really cocked a few things up yourself, it gets easier to be compassionate towards others, if you are that way inclined. It also becomes easier to lower your expectations and assume that the people around you will underachieve, and let you down. To a certain extent, we tend to give each other permission to fail.

Rather than trying to teach my son about shades of grey and excuses, I am listening to him. I am remembering my own childhood clarity and the simple sense of right and wrong I once had. I come to that now with a better understanding that other people have different takes and priorities. There is a difference however between honourably negotiating over needs and beliefs, and imposing them. Some perspectives (full of hate, greed, jealousy and malice) can never be justified. Some ways of behaving are never ok, no matter what excuse is offered. It’s easy to get so lost in the shades of grey that you forget about black and white, but they exist too. It is so important to celebrate the good things and stand firm against that which is wrong, but how many of us do either from one day to the next? In this one, my son is the teacher, and I have a great deal to relearn.

39 Days of prayer – Day 37

Day 37 – Accepting Love

On this day Goddess/God/Spirit

I release the sadness and loneliness of the past

And I consciously take action to heal my heart

so that love in all its forms may enter into my life.

I ask for your guidance in this Goddess/God/Spirit

Lead me to the people who will cherish me and easily share their affection.

Blessed be.

39 Days of Prayer – Day 36

Day 36 – Becoming Tolerant and Accepting of Others

As the world moves in confusion and intolerance

I pray to you Goddess/God/Spirit

That the love and harmony of your existence flows over the planet

And enriches the life and spirit of every man, woman, and child so that they may know peace and understanding.

Teach us accept one another, Goddess/God/Spirit

Show us how to embrace friends and strangers with love and respect

Remind us that though we all walk different paths

We are all seeking your light.

Blessed be.