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Asking Questions Is Most of Compassion

What is compassion? “We believe that the word represents something that we offer to others, or to ourselves. But is that accurate?”

Our first year of marriage was pretty easygoing. Annie and I met late in life, by which time each of us had built up skills in bypassing a lot of the usual conflicts. Either that, or life had beaten us down enough that we knew not to provoke another lashing. It’s not that money and jealousy were no longer treacherous, but a little eye-rolling behind the other person’s back was sufficient to get through the day. When the pandemic showed up, we adjusted pretty quickly, and blessed ourselves for having such routine, boring lives already.

And then I made the mistake of going back to school, signing up for an online Master’s in Eastern Classics from my alma mater. The problem was that I don’t know how to shut up in school, and all the classes were Zoom seminars. No lectures, just open discussions where anyone—especially me—could poke their nose in. Never invite a congenital know-it-all to an open conversation.

After every class, I turned off the Zoom feed and limped from my office to the living room, where Annie would look up smilingly and ask, “Talk too much?”

Sometimes I muttered back, “I hate myself.” Or I just stared slack-jawed at my kind wife while my mind played back the Grateful Dead lyric, “Please don’t dominate the rap, jack, when you got nothing new to say.” Over and over.

I tried the predictable cures: Notes to myself to shut up. Under-the-breath self-thrashings. Quotas for talking. Nothing helped. Finally I asked Annie for help. You might know her as the writer Anne Lamott, and probably think she has lots of good, funny advice. I got none of that. Her response: “Tell me more.”

She didn’t offer a cure, or an explanation. She did ask me questions, encouraging me to talk about it. Slowly, I uncovered—again—both the genesis of my narcissism, which has something to do with being brought up in a know-it-all household, toxically combined with the triggering aspects of being back in school to be judged and graded on my intelligence. Ugh, I disliked thinking about this even more than I dislike beets. Annie didn’t let go. “Tell me more,” she said, day after day.

Eventually, simply by revealing my suffering to Annie and therefore to myself, I didn’t hate myself like I was the pariah student. I moderately disliked myself like I was beets. That was enough. I could even feel sorry for myself. And while my motormouth continued, to be fixed the following semester perhaps, my self-loathing released itself into the ether.

What Annie showed me, and what with her tutelage I started to feel for myself, is the aspect of God known as “compassion.”

Compassion is the love that arises in the presence of suffering.

Let’s break that sentence down. “Compassion” is a word that we use liberally, across lots of different kinds of circumstances, to describe a feeling. When the word “compassion” shows up, it comes with a sense of richness, fluidity, and fullness in the chest. You may notice some energy rising from chest to head. We believe that the word represents something that we offer to others, or to ourselves. But is that accurate?

Compassion is the love that arises in the presence of suffering. Compassion isn’t the only kind of love; it’s a form that love takes. We know of other forms of love—for instance silly love, passionate love, or friendly love. How can I discriminate compassion from other kinds of love?

Compassion is the love that arises in the presence of suffering. Compassion isn’t manufactured. It arises, all on its own. I’m not compassionate and compassion isn’t something I do. It’s more like a place where I find myself living. I’m in compassion.

Compassion is the love that arises in the presence of suffering. Now we’re getting down to brass tacks. For compassion to arise, suffering has to show up first. Suffering can be great: the grief after a loved one’s death, or the difficulties of a bad marriage. Suffering can be trivial: a friend’s slight, a broken martini glass. Either way, compassion arises, which means that it makes itself available.

The thing is, most human interaction revolves around suffering. If you look for it, compassion is always here, or just around the corner. Think about suffering in all its manifestations.

  • Most conversation is complaining about things that have gone wrong or are about to go wrong (although Annie would like me to let you know that she is an exception and never complains about anything except presidents who start wars and judges who hate women and minorities)
  • All news shows focus primarily on things going wrong; even the “good news” segments are about people helping people who are suffering
  • Gossip generally homes in on the misfortune of others
  • Most entertainment focuses on suffering. Sitcoms revolve around conflict, novels torture their characters with a new conflict every page or two, love songs typically depict yearning and lost-love suffering
  • Most joking around is irony that focuses on the absurdity of the difficulty of life
  • Most of my interior dialogue is presenting the danger of missed opportunities, past or future
  • Catharsis and good feelings last a very short time compared with their lead-up of suffering

It all sounds pretty grim, right? I’m sure you want to argue with this litany, and you probably have a point. I’m leaving out lots of time spent in daydreaming and happy work and good times with friends and family. But there’s plenty of opportunity, daily if not hourly, for compassion to arise in the presence of suffering.

Most of us confuse sympathy for compassion. The usual mental response to a close friend’s complaint is to nod, “Yes, I know that one. I can help you through it.” Watch out. First, you’ve taken the suffering out of the victim’s experience and placed it in some paradigm that you, the so-called helper, have developed for yourself. Instead of it being about the friend, it’s really about you. Second, by saying, “Yes, I know that one,” you have cut off debate. You’ve stopped him or her at their first identification, which might be accurate or might not. It’s actually worse than helpful to say, “Yes, I’ve suffered in the same way.” This is counterintuitive. But let’s see what happens if you don’t use those words, and don’t try to help.

What happens if you say to your friend, like Annie to me, “Oh, you’re suffering. Tell me more.”

In my experience, the friend vents and vents for as long as it takes. And once the venting is over, a different emotion than pain overtakes the friend. Sometimes it’s an understanding that more was going on than he or she first noticed. Sometimes it’s relief, as if the suffering has let go a bit. Sometimes it’s embarrassment, as if noticing that the suffering was exaggerated. Whatever the change, it provides the friend with distance from the emotional grip that created the complaint.

When I complain, I’m defending myself against an attack or an unwanted feeling. When I’m done defending, I get quiet and let whatever’s here show up. What’s here, inevitably, is compassion. The only thing in the way of love is our defenses. The easiest way to drop our defenses is to release them full force into the world and watch them burn themselves out temporarily. That’s why we vent. That’s why we complain. Usually we cut off our complaining before the defense is exhausted, and before we can see through the defense. When we do, we miss out on the light, good-natured respite of compassion.

Off to class. Oh yeah, I’m still in school. As I leave, Annie calls out cheerily, “Don’t talk, Neal. Everyone will hate you.”

Excerpt from Shapes of Truth: Discover God Inside You, published May 2021.