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I recently visited Louisville, Kentucky, on the wide and muddy Ohio River, six miles from where slaves once swam to the free state of Ohio. The river’s navigation was interrupted here by the Falls of the Ohio, forcing early travelers to portage and offering creative entrepreneurs a site for budding commerce. Gradually a small settlement grew into an elegant city–home of the Kentucky Derby and the Louisville Slugger, an active center for interfaith dialogue and the title Compassionate City. As a Compassionate City, Louisville is committed to champion and nurture the growth of compassion.
Louisville is working on several initiatives that include ending homelessness, mentoring youth, restorative justice and feeding the hungry. Their big idea is translated into many manageable small actions.
This got me thinking about compassion. Karen Armstrong, the energy behind The Charter for Compassion, says the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. The Dalai Lama says compassion is a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to relieve suffering. I ask myself, how can I be more compassionate? How can I nurture this growth of compassion? What can I do about suffering? While it sounds like a big task, like Louisville I can break it into many small actions.
Take suffering. I would rather avoid my own and turn away from anyone else’s. Yet, I see that suffering can draw us together. We saw it on September 11, 2001–our suffering wasn’t just individual, it was communal. People came together to share the sorrow, to help with the burden. They came from all over the United Sates. The whole world mourned with us. We listened to the stories–the stories of love, of heroes, of loss. We could hardly get enough. We shared what we heard with our neighbors and our families and our friends. We wanted to connect. Suffering can draw us together.
The Buddhists tell us the suffering permeates life. How much life do I miss if I deny and avoid suffering? Even when I would rather not, I try to turn my face toward suffering. For instance, I read the biographies of the nine people killed in Charleston. I don’t listen to the incessant news broadcasts; rather I sit and read the story, holding the victims and their families in vigil. I am witness to their suffering in my little corner of the world. This form of prayer opens my heart.
I send notes to friends who have lost someone important to them. I used to wonder, what can I say? Now that I have lost both my parents I know that it is not the what that’s important, it’s the doing that is. The words show up when I sit with pen in hand or pick up the phone. It is recognizing the suffering that comes with loss, not pretending it is not there.
I listen to 5th steps. When I can be a safe container for the pain another shares, I help free him or her of a portion of their suffering.
Another way I reduce suffering in the world is to not add unnecessary suffering. For instance, I can be careful when I am with people. It is too easy to spout off without considering how it might be heard by another. I can let go of my critical stance where I find fault when none exists or over value what does. I can apologize for my part in a squabble. I can let go of grudges. I can refuse to be mean. There is style of humor that is mean, bordering on cruel. If it isn’t funny to everyone, then it isn’t funny.
One of the most difficult areas to release suffering is within me. It is so tempting to cling to my pain, to re-live perceived injustices, to feel entitled to my anger and bitterness. When I lack self-compassion I keep the embers of resentment and fear alive and fueled, or whip up my own hurt with self-flagellation and self-criticism. Why do I fear the freedom that letting go of my suffering could bring? In freeing myself I can meet others’ pain with much more kindness.
Sometimes I think I am being compassionate when really I am being co-dependent. How are they different? Co-dependents rely on their helping another to boost their own sense of self. Fixing your problems lets me avoid looking at my own. A compassionate person is present to the other without taking responsibility for the them or their problems. Compassion trusts that the person can and will find their own way.
I can get hooked by someone who wants me to make their life better. I am flattered by their belief that I can help. I put on my imaginary fireman’s hat and race to the rescue. You could do this or you could do that or if you do such and such I am sure that you would (fill in the blank–get a better job, have less pain, relate with your spouse better, etc.) But it is not my problem. It is theirs. When I bring compassion I can listen and be present to the concern, situation or problem. I know to whom it belongs. It is not me.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t give advice if I am asked, or dig a little deeper to better understand the problem. I may even connect the person, if they ask, with someone that can help–a specialist, a class, an author. But at the end of our time together, I don’t feel weighted by a problem that isn’t mine.
The old adage about giving a person a fish versus teaching them how to fish applies here. I might give one meal of fish, and then teach them how to fish. I might give someone a month’s rent at the same time I point them to affordable housing.
I don’t assume that someone wants my advise. I ask–do you want any advise from me on that? If yes, I share what I have, if not I keep it to myself.
One test is how do I feel at the end of the encounter? Do I feel drained of energy, weighted down, anxious about the outcome? If so, I am probably acting co-dependently. Do I feel energized, genuine, loving? Then I am probably acting out of compassion. I may also feel sad but I know it is my sorrow, not theirs. I am present to my own feelings without making them theirs or theirs mine.
I look forward to returning to Louisville to learn more about this Compassionate City. I like their big goal, their spirit of hope, their working together to make the world a better place. When I do go back, I will bring my own practices of compassion with me. Step by step we change who we are and then we change the world.