My life has been coloured by others. My body, my heart, my mind have sickened with compassion.
I make no claims to be exceptional in this: my skin is simply more permeable than most. My moods are dampened by other people’s suffering, my joy tempered by the thought that so many around the world do not have even half of the things I take for granted. I am restless and anxious when friends are ill or going through a rough patch. I hope they know that I am always there to help and support them, even if it causes myself discomfort or trouble. But who isn’t willing to put themselves out for friends? Nothing exciting to report there.
I worry about the poor and oppressed, the voiceless, powerless, helpless, nameless, faceless. I fear for all who are different of face, limb or thought, the outsiders, the rebels – with or without a cause, willful or yielding. I am guilty of not being there for everyone who ever needed me, not helping whenever I could, turning away with disgust when I could have tried to understand or forgive more.
So I always try to see the other side of the story, the other point of view. I can be accused of sitting on fences, of lack of courage, of refusing to commit, of having no certainties. I will always listen to one more argument, even if I do not agree with them. As Byron says:
If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.
I don’t believe in this contemporary quest for personal happiness. I wish I did. I wish I could pursue happiness without considering it selfish. I wish I could have intransigent views and be deaf to the multitude of voices. I wish I could have less empathy and more self-absorption. It sometimes feels to me that people who are compassionate are taken advantage of.
But it’s too late for me: my skin remains paper-thin, rippling with every current. I can understand and feel for even the most repulsive or conflicted characters in a book. I cry at films, weddings, funerals, graduations or friends’ confessions. ‘Put yourself in the other person’s shoes’ is not just a motto, it’s a way of life.
Is it too late for my children, I wonder? Am I doing the right thing teaching them to have more patience, more understanding, more empathy for other people? Would they be more serene if they were more blind to the needs of others, would they sleep more soundly when their universe extends only a shallow distance beyond their own contours?
Those are the darkest days, when I question the wisdom of compassion. Most days, however, I believe that the world is suffering from a lack of, rather than a surfeit of compassion.
For me personally, compassion is not a choice but a compulsion, but I have often been told to ‘care less’, to learn to ‘put myself first’. ‘Compassion is the radicalism of our time’ says the Dalai Lama – and how frightening it can be!