My facebook is filled with pleas for compassion like this article. I support showing compassion to refugees and Muslims, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. Other people are saying that, some of them better than I could.
I need to show compassion to myself and to those who hold different positions--even very different positions. I hope you'll consider what I'm saying and come to a similar decision for yourself. Extending compassion and empathy, searching for connection, is a choice. It's a choice to be open and to some extent vulnerable. I understand that it can be frightening to be that open and sometimes it is the wrong choice. For example I'm not going to choose to connect with someone who denies my humanity because of my religion, because I'm bisexual, or because of my sexual openness.
However, there are a lot of folks out there who have strongly held beliefs different than mine. If I am unable to connect to any of those people, the cost is going to be really high. As I'll explain in a short while, my personal cost is far higher than I'd be willing to pay. I suspect that if you consider your own cost, you will probably come to a similar realization.
Compassion is not Agreement
Some of the issues involved are not issues where I'm open to persuasion. I am not interested in debating the morality of my life. I'm sure that I'm a poly pagan, I'm proud of who I am, and I'm not looking to change that. I've heard friends talk about how they are not interested in being persuaded that people of their religion or background should be forced to register. They are not open to deciding it's a good idea that they or people like them be excluded from the United States. Many of my friends have strongly held beliefs about the role of the US as a melting pot, as a multicultural refuge.
I need not put those beliefs or opinions on the table to reach out with empathy. In fact empathy and compassion are not at all the same thing as trying to persuade someone to change.
When I empathize I'm looking to understand someone without judgment. I want to understand their feelings, needs and desires. I want to create a space where they can share them without feeling they (or what they share) will be rejected. In accepting what they offer I'm saying "I value what you've shared of yourself. I've taken the time to listen, and to accept it as who you are." No where have I agreed, accepted that is the "right way to be," "good people should think that way," or any such.
Close to Home
for me I began to realize that the challenge of empathy would be close to my heart one evening at my parents. My dad was eagerly listening to Fox News decry the dangers of Radical Islam. My dad began to discuss his concerns about the deterioration of the US, about how we couldn't trust the government, the danger of Sharia Law in the US, and concerns about ISIS.
my dad was quite worried and frustrated when he thought that the government couldn't be trusted to follow the law. On the same trip, my mom (and to a lesser extent dad) talked about taxes, deterioration of education, and how we are creating a society where government money is spent in a manner that doesn't actually help people and that fails to respect either the needs of the beneficiaries of government programs or the tax payers. My mom is worried that we are removing the incentives to challenge ourselves and be our best.
My parents and I have had a rough ride as we try to connect with each other. Sometimes I've found myself struggling to find a way to connect with my parents that had sufficient value to be worth the cost. I've chosen a life very different from them and have been unapologetic about who I am and have insisted on a high degree of acceptance in those I'm close to.
However each time we've examined our connection, we've found that the love we share is worth it. We turn to each other in times of need and joy. Fortunately political disagreement has always been a big factor in our family. Throughout much of my life, my parents have canceled each other's votes, my dad being more conservative than my mom. She's drifted right since I went to college. However there was no way that I was going to let politics get in the way of love: the issues that have challenged us have been about life choices and self determination.
Yet I felt fear and anger when I heard some of my parents' positions. People I know and care about very deeply have been unable to get adequate health care because their states follow my parents' beliefs. I'm not talking about people who choose not to work. One person I'm thinking of works far harder than I do laboring to make their family, spiritual community and world the best it can be. Other stories are similar. I care about my friends; I don't want to see them hurt. Multiple times I've faced the question of what would I do if someone I dated were hurt and needed medical care they could not afford. In one case, in all truth, I wish they had gotten a job. In other cases, choices like being a student or focusing on art were ones I supported.
Yet rather than hiding behind this anger, I talked to my parents. I heard their fear and frustration. They spent their life working, building savings. My mom spent her life volunteering and working to help the education system and on numerous advocacy activities; she wanted to see others have the same chance I had. She put her soul into that. She believes that work is being eroded. My parents have been disadvantaged because they dislike debt. They feel strong emotions when they think about the loss of control. I suspect that they think that even if their efforts in the larger world didn't work out, they should retain control over their own lives. They see policies including healthcare policy, tax policy, and the like as threatening both where they are now as well as what they put their effort into. They are frustrated with how these policies are implemented.
I can connect with that. I think my parents sometimes (and hopefully will more often) feel understood by me. I also think they can understand the fear and frustration I face when I see policies that deny those I care about medical care. I think they can understand why I care about GLBT rights and sexual freedom even though those issues are lower priority for them. I think they can understand my fear of spending the rest of my life with a Supreme Court that I do not respect.
I've been able to reach out and share other fears about the world. I recall one call when I talked to my mother about the secret Chicago detainment center. I expressed my fear about the world I found myself living in. At first it was hard for my mom to connect, but as she read the article and listened, she was able to hear and understand me. Being able to connect with someone who had very different beliefs but yet share this fear helped. If we could connect, perhaps there's some chance that enough people can connect globally to make a difference.
We're probably not going to convince each other. We don't generally try. We often don't agree. But we can listen and care.
The Value of Compassion
does that sort of connection provide value outside of a family relationship? For myself, I've concluded it does. First it makes it possible to work together when goals align. I can join Christian spiritualists in talking about the value of love, in exploring overlapping approaches to helping people reach their spiritual potential even though we have some important disagreements. I can maintain good professional relationships even when people choose to be open.
In addition, being understood tends to deescalate situations. I feel less of a need to defend myself or take radical action when I am understood. When I can connect with myself and others and step past my fear, options become possible that would not be possible otherwise. Sometimes this opens up opportunities for compromise.
The potential for compromise is not emasculation. I'm never going to give up on valuing civil liberty, my need to choose my own spiritual path, or my needs as a lover because i manage to face my fears. When I connect with myself and those around me I'm actually in a better position to see if a compromise is healthy or undermines needs that I would not choose to give up.
Even when compromise is not possible, connection helps us see each other as human and worthy of respect. We may be able to believe in the overall system understanding what needs are met even when some of ours are not.
Understanding in Return
Generally when I offer connection and empathy, I expect the same in return. I'm willing to listen openly in exchange for being heard. Without that I feel vulnerable and disconnected. Having confidence that the connection can go two-ways is often one of the biggest limitations for when I'll be able to be open. Sometimes I'll take a risk in listening for a while and once there is an initial connection asking to be heard. There are some cases where I think there's value even if I can't be heard.
Each of us will come to our own decision about when it's safe and desirable to be open. There are a lot of reasons for deciding not to be open. However I'm hoping that you'll take some time to think about the value in being open even in situations where ideas are very different. I'm hoping that you'll consider the costs of being open and closed, eventually coming to your own conclusion about when you choose to be open.