Note: I actually wrote the bulk of this weeks ago, but life has gotten incredibly crazy as of late thanks to school, my internship site, and a whole host of other things. Still, I wanted to get at least one post published for this theme. Enjoy!
Compassion: to feel with. In terms of human interactions, compassion is to allow yourself to not only feel for other people (sympathy) but to feel with other people (empathy). It is becoming an active participant in another person’s suffering. Or, if you want to take this beyond anthropocentrism, it is active participation in another being’s suffering. (It can also be applied to emotions other than those associated with suffering.)
Compassion, comparatively speaking, doesn’t get a lot of time in pagan discussion because it’s a “nice” emotion. Sometimes I feel that many neopagans are so afraid of being perceived as fluffy, frou-frou New Agers, prone to talking about “love and light”, that we create a front of cynicism and worldliness. We separate ourselves from those other people by seeming more serious, and denigrate the sensitivity that may be expressed by others. We think that because we aren’t just talking about The Secret and wrapping the entire planet in soft pink energy that we somehow have a more mature, developed way of approaching the world we live in. True, sometimes complex emotions are unnecessarily compressed down into 140-character sound bites on Twitter, and I could write a ton about how “the law of attraction” is stuffed full to overflowing with primarily white, middle-class privilege.
But what too often I see as being touted as an improvement over this sort of “fluffiness” is people extolling snark as a legitimate response to anything they disagree with and a way to bolster their in-group membership by rallying others in a dogpile over the target of their disdain. I see the people who spend the most time telling others just how wrong they are being lifted up as paragons of their traditions, while those trying to help people do things “right”, whatever that might be, are often struggling just to be heard. I see some pagans who are in a veritable emotional arms race to latch onto ever more aggressive and “not fluffy” deities, spirits, practices, etc., often insulting the practices of anyone less competitively hardcore as being less real or true.
All these things center on moralistic judgment as a value. It’s just one of the many violent forms of communication that so many of us have been socialized with and which we are told is the correct, tough, powerful way to communicate, no matter the expense levied to ourselves and others. I first became acquainted with the concept of a violent form of communication when I took a course on nonviolent communication (based on the works of Marshall Rosenberg) during my graduate counseling psych program. Rosenberg defines moralistic judgment, one of his “life-alienating communications”, as a judgment that:
…that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. Such judgments are reflected in language: “The problem with you is that you’re too selfish.” “She’s lazy.” “They’re prejudiced.” “It’s inappropriate.” Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment. (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 15)
A clarification: Moralistic judgment is contrasted with value judgment, which is used to judge which values are right for us, as opposed to applying our values to other people in a moralistic judgment. We can say what we value without determining whether someone’s agreement or disagreement with our values makes them good or bad people, right or wrong. When I refer to judgment in the rest of this post, to include as contrasted with compassion as a value, I will be specifically talking about moralistic judgment, not value judgment.
Many pagans value those who make moralistic judgments on others, whether it’s judging someone as less competent, less appropriate, or just “doing it wrong”. We may not want to admit this as a collective value, but it’s there nonetheless.
The thing about judgment in this vein is that it is often exceptionally self-centered. The person making the judgment is focusing on their feelings on the matter and expressing those feelings in aggressive, negative, hurtful manners, without ever taking the feelings of the other person(s) into account. Yet at the same time, it’s also a way for the person to relieve themselves of having to examine those feelings, because they’re focusing their response on someone else instead of looking at what prompted the whole mess in the first place. So a lot of the time this can be summed up with the thought process “Here is something that makes me feel in a way I dislike. I’m going to respond to my feelings by attacking what I perceive to be the cause, which is external to me”. While, for example, someone interpreting the goddess Morrigan as a loving mother isn’t nearly as dangerous to my health as someone pulling a knife on me, you would think that the insult was just as grave given the viciousness of the personal attacks I’ve seen that have come up as a response to “You’re doing spirituality wrong!” discussions. And never have I seen anyone doing the “correcting” take a look at why they feel so insulted about the idea of a cuddly carrion crow that they must make ad hominem attacks in addition to their history lessons.
Is it any wonder, then, that we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves?
Yet when we justify our cynicism and our snark and our aggression toward others, we are perpetuating the very cycles of violent communication that have contributed to us walling ourselves away from the world. In fact, I feel it is a tragedy how much we are allowing ourselves to miss out on when we approach the world through so many layers of defense. How much more intimacy and genuine emotion and honesty could we experience in ourselves and others if those defenses were no longer there? What if “feeling with” was the default, where we all mutually respected the vulnerability of everyone involved?
There are payoffs for compassion for yourself and for others. When you allow yourself to be open to both your actual feelings as well as those of the other person(s), you’re able to get a much more complete picture of what’s going on, and you can make a more informed decision as to how to respond (instead of instantly reacting defensively). This makes it more likely that everyone gets their needs met, because instead of communicating with more and more defenses, everyone is able to clearly state what it is they need, and is more likely to understand what’s preventing those needs from being met.
Compassion teaches better connection and general communication skills. There are pagans who claim to be nature-based, and yet it’s a surface-level connection based mostly on imagery and abstract concepts, without really feeling with other living beings, human and otherwise. Or they’ll talk about connecting with a tree in a meditation, but then they seem completely incapable of understanding why someone whose supposedly improper practices they just insulted is so unhappy about that judgment (when they really, truly deserved it for doing it wrong, right?). There are few more powerful ways to really connect with any other being than through compassion—to really open yourself up to what that other being is experiencing in that moment, not just through imagination and assumption, but through direct interaction. While you don’t have to divorce yourself from what you feel when, say, you’re in an argument, the quality of connection you can have together is much better when you’re able to really listen to what all parties are saying instead of only focusing on trying to get what you want. And that practice can help to strengthen not only that relationship, but improve all your relationships across the board, whether with another person, a deity, etc. And communication works much better when people are listening completely, not just harvesting choice phrases that they can then use to defend their own points without considering others’ thoughts in total.
And compassion takes bravery. Anyone can snap and snarl at someone else, and keep putting those walls up higher and higher, and feel safe and protected against the world (even if there’s no actual safety to be had). But it takes a lot of guts to face the risk of vulnerability that compassion requires. Sometimes that may end up being a situation where you’re the one feeling the sadness and hurt of someone targeted by a group of snarkers, and putting yourself at risk of drawing their fire by defending their target. Other times it’s more intimate and personal, really and deeply listening to a significant other you’re arguing with at the risk of “being proven wrong” by deciding their point is valid and thereby possibly sacrificing whatever you thought you were originally fighting for. To be compassionate takes a lot more work and courage than to simply continue being negative and defensive as a matter of course, and that effort builds character and emotional skills in a way judgment never could dream of accomplishing.
In the United States, the gender dichotomy is highly pronounced. While there have been some inroads in gender diversification, the overwhelming pattern is still that men are supposed to be masculine (stoic, not emotionally expressive, strong) and women are supposed to be feminine (emotionally expressive, weak, passive). Compassion is generally relegated to the latter artificial category, a sort of emotional ghettofication. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.
Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through To You (which was an assigned text for my Masters-level couples counseling course), related a trip he made to Tanzania. He asked some of the local Masai what makes a great morani, or warrior. One very old man in the community answered thusly:
I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani…But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which! (Real, 2002, p. 76)
So much for the (largely male-and-masculinity-dominated) pagan warrior ethic that focuses mainly on being strong and protective. While there are certainly times and places for ferocity and aggression, like so many other people in the United States, American pagans in particular tend more toward judgment than compassion. The continuation of witch wars and snark communities, the divisiveness of “Well, we don’t do things like THEY do because WE’RE better”—these all have judgment at their cores.
I feel strongly that compassion is a worthy value for pagans to consider adopting more frequently. It takes work–I still slip up a good deal myself despite my words here–but it’s a good goal to work toward, I feel. If we want to reduce the prevalence of moralistic judgment and other violent forms of communication in our community, then compassion is a particularly effective medicine. When we feel what another is feeling, we cannot attack them without attacking ourselves (and if we have so little compassion for ourselves that we feel this self-sabotage isn’t a problem, so much more the reason to examine why this is). Through compassion we are disarming ourselves, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of finally breaking through a vicious cycle, and spending our energy on more constructive efforts than simply building more and higher defenses against others.
Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through To You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. New York: Scribner. [admittedly very heterocentric, but a good book nonetheless]
Rosenberg, M. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press. [a bit outdated compared to Rosenberg’s more recent emphases, but still a worthy read]