Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

4 thoughts on “Compassion Anyone?

  1. Great essay as always. First, your premise that we need to better understand those around us, particularly, those who are suffering, is spot on so we can make some progress in what ails us (whether individually- in being too judgmental; or, simply as a country). Second, when you see the sign that proclaims a desire to have children unmasked– that is a relatively easy one- to achieve empathy. Who would not want that for their children?

    When you see the sign that contains an explitive (political or otherwise) my thoughts are along the following: How is it that our public discourse has become so vitriolic? Let’s examine that (and it is easy to say Trump has lead the way…[this is a fact]….) but in order to be productive- we need to inquire… why does these ad hominem attacks take root? Why are people not merely willling to vote for a person who spews the most uncivl statements, but why do we (or many of us) now start to EMULATE that conduct? Conduct our KINDEGARTEN teachers work to teach how wrong this would be?

    Why has this uncivility become so commonplace (look at not just the Repuclicans but also the Democrats too- i.e. Schumer). How do we have generate a respectful dialogue? Where have we (as a country) gone wrong?

    We have made some “recent” racial progress as a country… think in terms of Colin Powell’s career; Obama being elected; confederate memorials being removed…. but the question becomes, why the backlash (from those who feel threatened by having to acknowledge our white nationalist heritage)…leads me to think… why do they need to feel this way?

    Is it economics? Is it that we have grown up with a sense of entitlement?

    Think in terms of volume 1 of your mother in law’s testimony- as a holocaust survivor— she explained that prior to the holocause- she considered her family very well off (she may have used the word wealthy). When asked why- she said – they had access to fresh produce. (She further explained how they family slept in one room). And her family was wealthy. Why do we not have a similar perspective?

    Think also in terms of this: Have you seen the awe inspiring mansions in I think Newport RI? Where the wealthiest were able to construct homes off of the ocean? Did you notice they did not have running water; they did not have electricity; they did not have access to the entertainment which 99% if not more of all of america has by virtue of electricity and advances in technology? I am not in any way minimziing the arguments that our country has an ufair tax system etc…. and that the wealthy, presently, have more than their fair share, but, before we feel “deprived” we ought to better be able to take stock of what “wealth” we do have.

    Yet, I think, many of those who put up the signs you reference feel deprived. We have lost perspective. And we need to get better at that– and how we become better educated- to achieve this goal— that is not so easy. But I think that is the way to start the process of becoming a more civil society.

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  2. I have a thought that is perhaps tangentially related although not precisely on point. That has to do with the why of a person’s words or deeds. I think that we often think the worst of another person’s intentions, especially when they are saying something or doing something we do not like or agree with. Maybe this is part of being judgemental. Maybe this is part of not being able to relate to them through their prism.
    But I do think that we ought to be better about not assuming that the other’s intentions are necessarily bad. I know I ought to be better at it.
    This can be about the bigger political picture and people we disagree with. It can be a workplace dispute or an argument with a family member. I think we should be cautious about thinking we know what is in another person’s mind. And if we don’t know, perhaps we could be a bit more generous in our disposition towards them.
    Thank you for the excellent blog post.

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  3. A well written blog. Over the past several years I’ve given a lot of thought on this subject matter. I’ve come to a couple of conclusions at least for me on how to mitigate my angst and anger toward another person or an event that I may have read about (or seen on TV).

    I’m sure you heard the phrase ” don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”. In other words don’t be so quick to be judgmental. I know more often than not I now give this a thought or a pause before I respond to a particular discussion, especially when that discussion is not going in the direction I favor. Not so many years ago I would cut that person off, jump in with my thoughts, not letting that individual finish their thought. I was judging this person unfavorably. In essence dismissing him/her and relegating them as inconsequential.

    Another perhaps odd perspective I have on being judgmental is when I am interrupted while explaining my point of view on a particular issue. If a person continually does this I shut myself down, I don’t say another word. I am judging this person to be a non-listener or righteous in their view that it would be a waste of time and energy to continue the conversation. Here I am judging someone that is under the influence of a belief that is not reachable to counter an opinion.

    On the other hand when an individual is expressing their thoughts and opinion on an issue that I don’t agree with (especially politics or social issues), I listen and let that person talk away. It is my belief and experience that the longer that person talks the more outrageous they would become giving me plenty of ammunition to refute their argument. I have a number of friends/acquaintances that will fall into this category and eventually I just shut myself down from the conversation.

    One other point that I would like to mention. I Have a good friend, we don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues. However, he is a good listener, he does not interrupt me nor do I interrupt him. Over the course of time I have come to see his point of view in a better light, as he does of mine. In fact we have softened our position on some of our respective positions. Listening is the key to lessening the judgmental quagmire your blog has addressed.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I completely agree. Listening, and listening with an open mind (at least as best we can), is key. It seems reasonable, once a person has revealed themselves either to be unable to listen or so set in their views, to shut down. Why continue to expend the energy? Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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