Post-Navaratri Reflection: Empathy, Limits, and Prayer for Others (Part III – Nurturing Compassion)

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As Navaratri ends, and Diwali arrives just around the corner, I find myself further considering what all I need to work on. Some of the things I value are not always the things I perfectly embody, or consistently emulate; my goal is to eventually change that. At some point, I hope to do better with serving a better example for my values. In previous posts, I discussed important lessons regarding building better boundaries and cultivating empathy. This post will focus on something that may be harder than the strengthening of the other two: compassion.

I found myself unable to help but chuckle when I saw someone wear a shirt that said: “Make Empathy Great Again.” It reminded me just of what I reflected on in my latest post, reinforcing the mega importance of my lessons, and the road I have ahead. Still, empathy is not sufficient, and I know compassion will be a harder value to better show. One can understand where someone is coming from while still wishing ill on them. Wanting ill to befall someone else as a knee jerk response to them doing harm on one’s self or even dear ones is so natural. Self-preservation mandates finding what one can do to prevent harm from happening again. To an extent, self-preservation is even a wise course of action. Protecting one’s self from harm is logical, even.

Our need for self-preservation though can make the cultivating – and nurturing of compassion – a challenge. This challenge does not come without its price. If one tries to hold healthy boundaries while nurturing compassion, it can become very exhausting because we are ultimately fighting our instincts. Instincts that demand doing what it takes to survive. At the same time, ignoring such instincts leads to them manifesting in even more unpleasant ways later on. It becomes a vicious cycle, and no one is immune to it. With enough practice and experience, one merely becomes ‘resistant’ or able to cope with this obstacle.

Showing compassion is not always rewarding, either. If anything, it invites more suffering into one’s world view. Even considering it something important invites problems, especially in the current political climate. Sometimes, one finds themselves being pulled through a keyhole to get through the door in their cultivation of it. Buddhism and multiple strands of Hinduism speak of suffering as being part of existence in this external, material world. Anyone who embraces this belief might have an easier time understanding the importance of compassion (though I daresay, even I still struggle often enough). It is not always the path of happiness, no matter how prized it is.

A greater challenge for one who values compassion is when one has to choose their battles. Again, self-preservation plays a role in this. Sometimes, I had needed to cut ties with someone because I had no way to help them and give them what they want. While I understand that sometimes, it is the best thing one can do in such situations, it still sometimes feels dirty inside. I still sometimes struggle with guilt from it. The Dalai Lama coined the term ‘wisely selfish’ in his works on the pursuit of happiness and altruistic ways of living. It feels fitting for people who feel the need to be pragmatic while valuing compassion, or have to pick their battles or draw a harder line at times. If one cannot do good for others, or even avoid harming others, one needs to find a way to minimize the harm. At some point, I know I have not succeeded at this task. Yet I have to keep trying.

The hardest level of compassion is having enough of it, along with empathy, to forgive someone. Even though I consider myself ready to forgive others more than myself, there are times I struggle. There is a balance between empathy, compassion, and healthy boundaries, and sometimes – especially with our current climate – it feels accountability and forgiveness are mutually exclusive. I do not think it needs to be the case, and I have sometimes disagreed with friends who believe they are. Because I believe in restorative justice, this sometimes puts me at odds with other members of various social movements I support. At the same time, I also know how some have tried to use the idea of forgiveness to “simply let things slide.” Forgiveness I feel deserves a better reputation, to not be considered a belief of weak wills or the advantage of the extortive.

How that looks, is not an easy question to answer.


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