On Compassion

In developing my own understanding of what I mean by “Write Mindfulness,” and how the three components of “Right Speech” (truth, helpfulness, and compassion) can be used to determine whether something I write feels “necessary,” I have found the idea of “writing with compassion” to be the most nuanced. The trickiest.

The term “compassion” implies kindness and empathy. But as I get older, I have come to realize that “kindness” and “empathy” have serious limitations. Simply put, writing with compassion can’t mean “being nice” or “putting myself in someone else’s shoes.” Both are often uncalled for (in writing and in life)—they’re (too) often not helpful or true. Instead I think writing with compassion has to involve using my writing (and teaching and editing) in the following ways: (1) to establish my own individual sovereignty (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually), (2) to recognize and respect the individual sovereignty of other people, and then (3) to somehow foster communion between the two. Here are some guiding principles for what that might look like:

Compassion isn’t empathy. Empathy can go too far. It can become an act of intellectual, emotional, and/or spiritual appropriation. Colonization. Its two pitfalls: (1) sometimes you’re wrong; you think you know what another person is thinking or feeling and you really don’t. But even if you’re right, (2) it’s very easy to infringe upon the other person’s individual sovereignty. I see this most powerfully in my interactions with my son. It’s tempting to interpret the intensity of my love for him as a kind of melding: he is me and I am him. There are certain ways, moments, when that might approximate the truth. But that melding is the opposite of what he needs from me. He never needs that from me. The same is true of the people who read my work, the people I teach, the people whose work I edit. They never need that from me.  

Sympathy / Symphony. Compassion isn’t pity, either. Maybe it’s related to sympathy but I prefer the metaphor of symphony. In a symphony, disparate parts make a cohesive whole. Compassion is a spirit of engagement. Play together. Work together. Join the fray. Integrate your efforts to make meaning together.

Know Your Role + Do Your Part. The primary focus, then, is not on the other person. Not at first. The first and foremost thing is to have a strong sense of my own individual sovereignty. (Secure your own mask first.) Then it requires humility: I have to be very clear about what I can and cannot do. And then I have to make a concerted effort to do what I can do. Then, and only then, am I to pay close attention to the people around me so that I can integrate my efforts with theirs.

Com + Passion. “Com” implies a connection—it means “with.” “Passion” is a kind of engagement, a fullness of self. Compassion, then, is engaging in a fullness of self with other full selves. My writing, teaching, and editing must be rooted in this fullness.