While sitting on my front porch in Haiti, I once had a friend ask me this question, “What had to die in you so that compassion could live?” At the time I told him that I didn’t know how to answer that question but I could guarantee him that I would meditate on it and would someday write about it as soon as I began to understand the answer to it myself. At first it seems like a question injected with an incredible level of hopelessness and defeat. What has to die so that compassion can live?
When we set out on a journey such as mine, one intended to make a difference, we do so full of hope and determined to not be defeated. We take on the world armed with an indomitable faith in humanity and a stubborn confidence in our own place within it. One human, with a pure heart, the ultimate good intentions, and the most honorable vision to play our role in making the world a better place. If we’re smart we do all of this with the honest knowledge that it will be very difficult, but it will be worth it in the end.
I personally set out on my humanitarian-esque journey in Haiti with some very specific ideas about what was right and what was wrong, what were solutions and what were problems, and what was help and what was need. Each of these things I held in their easily definable boxes, boxes that I carried with me. But those boxes grew heavy and cumbersome as I journeyed on and discovered that compassion had no place to live in a soul that had created such restraints on itself. It also became clear that without compassion, I couldn’t live. In an environment where sometimes resentment and indifference might seem to be the easiest reactions to the injustice and adversity that surrounds us, Compassion became as vital to my survival as water. But I hadn’t made space for it. I had to let something die so that compassion could live.
I came to accept that that something was absoluteness. I had to let absoluteness, the black and white of it all, die. I’ve discovered that compassion cannot live in black and white. Compassion is no companion to perfection. Compassion must embrace imperfection in order to thrive. Compassion can only live in a place where failure and brokenness are also welcomed. I had to let certainty die and begin to allow space for multiple truths to emerge and be considered. Only then could my life grow expansive enough for compassion to take root.
Compassion is a state of being that requires adapting to the grey areas of life because humanity is complicated. In order to receive our fellow human beings with grace and mercy we must be prepared to understand them in ways that don’t adhere to our strict formulas for what is good or right or true. For me, reception is the key to compassion. For compassion to live you must be ready to receive others into your heart and your soul. We are never able to do that if those spaces of ourselves are burdened by our rigidly construction categories of who we think ourselves to be and who we believe others should be. We must let go of those notions and simply allow ourselves and others to just be. When pure being is liberated within yourself and you welcome others in with that same liberation, then compassion is invited into a life that is expansive enough for it to flourish. It’s within that reception that you are able to see yourself reflected in the other person and you’re also able to recognize God manifested within them. That’s the fertile soil of the soul that compassion requires to grow.
I’ve been around long enough to witness plenty of people who will kill off compassion for the sake of maintaining control of the story that they’ve built for themselves of what this world is. When compassion dies, faith dies right along with it. Without compassion, faith in oneself and who you’re meant to be cannot survive. When you lose your ability to recognize yourself in the eyes and in the lives of others, then you lose yourself, period. At that point, searching for someone else to blame for why things didn’t work out will always prove fruitless. It’s because you never allowed space for growth within you. You never allowed the lines to blur at all. You never allowed the shades of grey. Compassion needs room within us to breathe. When we don’t actively cultivate that room, compassion will suffocate under the pressure of our concrete expectations that we build on top of it.
A lot of people confuse pity for compassion, but in my experience, pity is actually the opposite of compassion. Compassion says, “I see you as you are and I see myself within you.” Pity says “I wish I saw you differently and I see myself above you.” Too many people working within the fields of aid and nonprofits across cultures are operating from a position of pity and that’s why their projects continue to reproduce the same cycles of hurt and need that have existed for generations. If more people and institutions began operating from a position of compassion instead, we could begin to see more results of healing and abundance.
In these fields we like to talk about compassion fatigue, as if it’s a limited resource that we run the risk of exhausting if we give too much of it. I don’t believe that compassion is like gas in a tank that we burn until it’s empty or money in our wallet that we spend until it’s gone. Compassion is much more like seeds scattered in a field and it is up to us to provide a healthy environment for it to grow. We can become fatigued and weary in our bodies, but compassion doesn’t reside in the body, it dwells within the soul, and that’s where the potential for it to become all consuming is infinite as long as we create the space.
On my own journey, I certainly can’t presume to say that I’ve arrived at a place where I am completely consumed with compassion. All that I can do is try to cultivate that fertile soil in my soul for it to take root and allow it the space that it needs to grow. What is taking up that space in your own life that is preventing compassion from living? What is blocking out the light and sucking up all of the oxygen? Find it. Name it. Then let it die. Then and only then will you be able to welcome in a new relationship to the world defined by a compassion that is alive within you.