I’m doing a lot of contemplating on the concepts of power. Not the kind you get when you plug-in the device you’re reading this on, but the kind human beings wield upon the world and in our own lives. Decisions, actions, our preconceptions, our assumptions, our ideas and the sources of our inspiration can be weighted and leaden with fear, guilt and hate, or not. We all “get” that on a gut level, but I don’t think much of the world really understands what the “not” part of that sentence really means. I don’t think I always know what it means either for that matter.
I was reading today about the power of compassionate action means. There’s a passage in a book called “The Sufi Book of Life: 99 Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish” by Neil Douglas-Klotz that I keep coming back to. On pages 192-3, Douglas-Klotz shares a couple of stories, one old and one modern and personal about taking compassionate action. In both stories the actions taken are not always understood, but what’s crucial in the mind of Douglas-Klotz is that what moves us to embody sacred power should never been colored by our own assumptions that we know what is best, or to be a hero or to make the world work in our own image of “right,” but rather embodied power and compassionate action, must be selfless. The action, when inspired by genuine compassion includes the natural understanding that comes with true wisdom.
I have been studying this passage for years now. I am not sure I have ever fully comprehended it. The clearest moment I have felt myself acting from anything approaching inspired compassion was at a park one day years ago now. There was a group of teens there clumped together, shouting. I was trying to carry on a conversation while walking with a friend, so I was trying to ignore them. As I drew closer, I realized they were having an argument and that a seagull’s squawking was in the middle of it. I turned to look. I saw some of the boys in the group hitting and kicking the bird while it stood stunned on the ground, not seeing any way out of the sea of legs around it. Its eyes were a bit glazed with terror. Before I realized what I was doing, I walked toward the group of shouting teens, my eyes on that poor bird. When I got close, The teens turned to see me and I parted the crowd without even looking at them. I quietly asked them, “What are you doing to that bird?” There was no judgment in my voice, just the rhetorical question behind it. I kept walking toward the bird, and began murmuring to it, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” The teens moved out of our way and some of the group began to chastise the offenders again. Apparently that was what the shouting had been about. Some wanted the abusers to stop hurting the bird, others thought it was funny. No one was laughing about the bird’s distress by the time the bird and I began walking together through the center of the group. Out of the corner of my eye, one of the boys looked ashamed at himself for hurting the bird, but I ignored all of them. I had eyes only for the bird. It was so distressed and my heart was right there with it, trying to help it get away. It back away from me, watching me and finally we were out of the crowd of legs and feet. When it realized it was safe finally, its eyes cleared of fear and it really saw me. We looked at each other for a long moment before it flew away. I saw its relief, its gratitude and its recognition of me as it’s helper. I watched it fly off, feeling I had a friend. Then I remembered the friend I’d wandered away from and realized that the teens had moved away, still bickering. No one had bothered me for interrupting their fun. I suppose they could have, but there was something about the power of my compassion. It didn’t feel like only mine. It felt like something outside myself moved my body and everything around me got with the program, so to speak. It was a moment I go back to as a measure for my actions in recent years.
Since 9/11 and the world and American politics that have followed, I’ve been pissed off. Not so much at what has happened when terrorists act or when politicians or citizens act hatefully. I mostly feel a keening sorrow about the stupidity and vengeance that keeps leading us to a far darker future than I can readily accept. No, my anger seems consistently reserved for how we as a society are responding together about moments like 9/11 or the shootings of black men by police or….
The bottom line is we aren’t responding with any sort of inspired or wise compassion. We are lashing out. At best, we begin shouting unforgivable things into already wounded ears. At worst, we kill. We want our way, we want others to stop, we want it to be better, but we don’t want to change anything inside ourselves, we just want others to do what we want right this minute or damn them all to hell.
As for me, I mostly I just feel overwhelmed, if I’m honest. My life is so very often consumed with the hurdles of my health and poverty, there’s just so little energy left over for compassionate action in the world. Nevertheless, I feel an urgent sense of responsibility to act for the benefit of my children and grandchildren. I want the people I love to inherit the world I have experienced, but in a better version. I know that my concept of that is deeply personal and that I can’t have it all my way. I’m fairly sure I don’t want to be left in charge of all the details of making that happen anyway, but I feel an instinct rise in me when I read the news or when I look at my Facebook feed. My gut scrolls along with my finger…nope, nope, nope again, and nope yet again. Most days I never read a word that tells me anyone’s actions are moved by a divine spark of wise compassion. Mostly it is hubris of the worst kind in action, inspired by bigotry, dunk on supposed-power, fear and hate. I can hear my own blithering too. I sputter about 45, or about this or that “idiot” in charge and it’s just fouling me with anger and hatred. It’s doing me no good. Yet I can’t help but feel so angry and powerless.
I don’t know how we “get it.”
For me, that’s the real question of the day. The rest is just the details. Granted those details will result in consequences that might be as harsh has nuclear war, and a ruined ecology, such that we can’t survive as a species, but they are details that we can’t change at all until we understand how to embody inspired, wise compassion and let it guide our actions.
Compassion isn’t about making someone feel better for now. It’s about the kind of justice and peace that comes of not hating each other or feeling entitled to anything that you’d grab out of someone else’s hands just so you can be better than them or so that you don’t have to suffer in some way. Inspired compassion has vision that is colorless, lawless, race-less, genderless, and not the least religious or bound by government, family ties,…
I know what “it” is instinctively, but I don’t know how to impart it to others really. I think that Prot said it best in “KPax” when he said that “every being in the universe knows right from wrong.” I agree with Prot. We are equal. We are all connected. We have something to learn from each other. We have the capacity to love each other without having to define it or confine anyone else to what we find acceptable for ourselves. We just have to do it. It is really just that simple. Really.