"When we generate compassion for the difficult people in our lives, we get to see our prejudices and aversions even more clearly. It can feel completely unreasonable to make compassionate a wish for these irritating, belligerent people. To wish that those we dislike and fear would not suffer can feel like too big a leap. This is a good time to remember that when we harden our hearts against anyone, we hurt our selves."
-- Pema Chodron
Many years ago I heard one of my teachers tell a story about compassion. In these difficult times I think it's a great reminder for all of us.
Once upon a time, while swimming along a bottom of the lake, a school of fish paused to look up to see what all the commotion was about. What they saw above them was a single fish racing, jumping and skipping in and out of the water.
One fish in the school turned to another and said, "Look at that jerk ... who does he think he is anyway, just dancing and skipping across the lake! What a show off ... he is so weird -- it's no wonder he is all alone out there."
Of course, what they didn't see was the lure and barbed hook that was painfully embedded inside the mouth of the fish as he fought and pulled with every ounce of energy he had against the nearly invisible 20-pound test line the fisherman was quickly reeling in.
At times we can be just like the school of fish in this little parable. Life is like one big lake in which we are all swimming, and sometimes someone "hooks" our attention with their peculiar or outrageous behavior, and we rush to judgment. We tend to make assumptions and reach a conclusion based on that judgment, and then we build a case to support it.
Without really knowing what possible pain might be going on inside that person's mind or body, too often we say (or think), "Oh, look at that guy, acting so moody and glum" or, "What a bum, he should just get a job" or, "What a chip he has on his shoulder -- he is really out of touch with reality" while all the time, this person may be doing the best he can to simply make it through the day.
It is quite impossible for us to know what others are going through. It's interesting to note that Don Miguel Ruiz's "Four Agreements" seem to fit in here perfectly:
"Be impeccable in your word ... Don't take anything personally ... Never make assumptions, and ... Always do your best."
The sad truth is, we often judge our loved ones even more critically than strangers. It is a curious thing, isn't it? Marcus Aurelius wrote, "If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment about them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now."
Perhaps compassion and non-judgment would be an easier conclusion at which to arrive if we could remember that every person in our experience is serving as a perfect mirror that reflects back to us some aspect of our own character we may not choose to or can't see in ourselves. Many people avoid compassion, not because they are callous, but because of their own fear of the pain they see in others -- it reminds them of their own vulnerability.
In its purest form the word compassion means "together with feeling." This means when we enter into compassion for one another we heal all sense of separation from one another, and we allow ourselves, to the best of our ability, to enter into the others' pain -- not to fix it or heal it, or even "share in it," but simply to be there and allow the healing energy of our presence to say, "You are not alone -- I am with you." I believe this is what every person in deep pain, be it physical or emotional, truly longs for -- to know they are not alone. The spiritual truth is we are not alone because we are all one. Perhaps it's time to demonstrate that more fully in our lives. The only prerequisite for compassion is non-judgment and a willingness to share sacred space with another, if only for a few cherished moments.
Compassion heals in ways that medicine and empty words never will, at the level of the soul self. This is an amazing gift we can bring into every relationship we shall ever have, from our most intimate others to the stranger at the post office. Let today be a day when you deepen your compassion and lessen your judgments. Your presence on this planet will make a difference if you can do this one simple thing.