When asked the most important virtue in combating the “darkness that seems to be eating away at humanity” (the umbrella phrase I’ve decided to use to refer the various “-isms”: sexism, ageism, racism, etc.), I would argue that it is the virtue of compassion. But what is that exactly?
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Still somewhat confusing, I’d say, so here’s my definition: simply caring about the welfare of another person, hurting when they hurt, and having a desire to stop that pain. Arguably, though, compassion is strongest when the ailments of the sufferer are known. If I do not know my neighbor is suffering, what will make me come to their aid?
Prior to doing a bit of research for this piece, I used to think the great, neighborly citizens of America had a compassion problem and that this was tied to a person’s character. It seemed to me Americans were becoming compassionless, heartless people, deeply rooted in their own individualism. I mean, how else could large groups of grown people believe that children playing with toy guns deserve to be gunned down in a legal-carry state? These people that think this way must be evil!
Maybe not so . . . it is possible the people that think this way are just unaware of the distress that select minority groups of the American population face because they themselves have never been party to such distress. Neither have many of their friends, neighbors or co-workers with whom they engage in regular conversation. If compassion is strongest when the distress is known, how then can these upstanding citizens truly have compassion if they are blind to the plights affecting their faraway neighbors?
Since I’m not a big fan of asking rhetorical questions when attempting to help solve real-world problems, I shall offer just one answer that will help this problem: listen.
Yes, listen. Feminists, BlackLivesMatter proponents, disgruntled union workers, and gay-rights activists have all been called “loud” at some point in time. They are loud for a reason; they are asking for you to hear them. They are asking for you to listen.
Why listen, you ask? So you may be made knowledgeable of their distress and therefore develop some compassion and then possibly help make the world a better place.
Making the world a better place is too much work, you say? Nonsense! Even just opting not to spread hateful opinions helps the world become a better place! Yes, this is one case where inaction is indeed action. Yay for saving the world by doing nothing!
But wait, there’s more! Don’t quit reading and start fishing your Batman cape out of the attic just yet—remember that there is an active part in all of this, and that is to listen, and listen without retort. I know for many people reading this, listening to “loud” unfamiliar faces screaming about equality is sometimes difficult. Akin to growing pains in muscles and joints, personal growth is sometimes painful.
In yoga class, when bending like a pretzel becomes most uncomfortable and we get to a point where we wish to start screaming profanities at the slightly more slender and definitely bendier instructor, we are asked to instead listen to our bodies. Listen to whatever bicep or thigh is screaming “this sucks” instead of cursing it and quitting, because if you quit you will never understand your body and you will not get any better.
I ask of all of you who experience discomfort at any one of the understandably uncomfortable topics circulating our culture through word of mouth, social media and other media outlets to just listen. When someone says “we are hurting,” instead of lashing out at that person because you don’t understand their point of view, just listen.
You probably will not experience an immediate change, and that is OK! I mean, I have been practicing yoga for five years now but have still not mastered Standing Forward Bend, and my lower back and abdomen still scream at me when I try. But I am most definitely closer than when I began because I didn’t give up.
Cultural change is not easy, quite the contrary: it is extremely complicated . . . and messy. However, we all know that here in the South, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. We can all be party to the elephant feast if we just learn a little compassion by putting on our elephant-sized listening ears.
I hope my words have not caused too much discomfort and you have made it this far. If so, thank you for taking the time to listen. May you be blessed with new virtues, happiness, lovingkindness and peace.