In Defense of Compassion


Most of my adult life has been propelled, in one way or another, by compassion.

As someone who began making a career in internet technology during the dot-com boom, I was always uneasy with what on earth I was doing by pushing pixels across a screen for a living. Who did I help, making web sites to prop up the egos of CEOs and corporate shareholders? It took me years to press my way into service to something with more value to humanity. By 1999, I was using the pixel-pushing skills I’d learned to support the voices of non-profit organizations. Necessarily, the budgets and the ability to innovate came later to these organizations. I could not charge them money they did not have; it was not greed that motivated their protest. My prices as a freelancer changed to reflect this. I adjusted and leaned toward compassion.

Then, when my children were born in the early 2000s, my entire life became an exercise in compassionate listening. A baby cried, unable to manage her emotions or get her needs met in any other way, and I held her. I sang to her, I soothed her. It seemed unconscionable to behave any other way. Another baby was born, this time sick and in pain, and she cried even more and for far longer than the first one had. My compassion was called upon constantly, to weigh my own needs against hers and to ask myself whether she had any other means of expressing her misery, any reserves of patience or space in her brain to make the developmental leaps a child with a full stomach and no pain can make. She did not, much of the time, and I needed to dig deep to find my own untapped wells of compassion. She needed every drop I had.

When my family made the commitment to live in an economically and racially diverse community and to fully support our public schools, it required compassion and compromise, too. Friends in more monied and, frankly, whiter communities bragged of the resources available to everyone in their midst, and I nodded and tried to see them with as much compassion as I saw my local friends who waited anxiously each month for their food assistance checks to arrive. One group benefited little from the education and consciousness-raising of seeing those less fortunate than them both in opportunity and in financial resources, and the other group struggled every day to cope with societal injustices, food insecurity, and regular prejudice. Both regularly did what they felt was best for their families, putting aside either nagging guilt or stifling pride. I tried — and keep trying — not to judge either side. I often fail. Still, I stay in both relationships and offer what I can, and most of all, I keep my eyes open.

When we learned in 2014 that my daughter had been treated for years for the wrong disease — a misdiagnosis that cost our family money, time, and heartache, that put my daughter unnecessarily through a dozen medical procedures under general anesthesia — we could have sued the doctors and the medical practice that let it happen. Still, I recalled the doctor sitting next to her bed in the recovery room, shaking his head in concern and confusion, unsure of why she didn’t respond to the normal course for patients in her situation. He was not a bad man. He made a mistake. I wrestle, still and maybe always, with the inability to see her doctors as totally negligent. Perhaps they were. I hold compassion in my heart for them, still: human beings, all of them, with lives as complex as mine.

There is a saying that has been widely misattributed to a variety of sources, but seems most likely to be written by a nineteenth century writer and journalist who went by the name of Ian MacLaren. “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” is how it is most often quoted. MacLaren, whose real name was John Watson, went on in another piece of writing to say this:

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.

With this in mind, after U.S. election results which go against my most core values, I am searching for the way to compassion. I believe that few who voted for Donald Trump voted for the version of him that I see. Those who voted for him were living in a version of this country that does not work for them. Perhaps their experiences of the people he belittles and disparages have been limited, or negative. Perhaps their lives, livelihoods, or families are broken in such fundamental ways, and they believe a reinvented government can fix that. I do not view their candidate with compassion, but I am trying – and trying, and failing and trying again — to find the compassion for them.

There can be no doubt that those who voted for Donald Trump either espoused or looked past racism, sexism, heterocentrism, and xenophobia. For that, I have no real compassion. However, it would be a waste of a lifetime of careful consideration of the “other side” of every argument not to examine why this was possible for so many people. There is a difference between empathy and compassion; empathy asks us to feel what the other feels, and that is something I cannot do here. Compassion, however, asks us to see the humanity in others even when it doesn’t reflect our own, and to wish for an end to torment even for those people who threaten us.

I will fight for what I believe, but not with ears deaf to those who believe differently. This does not mean that I accept the hate. This does not mean that I accept violence — I’m wearing my safety pin and prepared to take a fist in the face to protect anyone who needs it — but it does mean that the long-term solutions to the crisis we face must include compassion for all people. When people are whole, perhaps they will not need to rise up against their fellow men. I say it to my daughters all the time: “Hurt people HURT people.”

It’s going to be a long winter.  Onward, with compassion.


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