Clinging to Compassion

I knew I was in trouble when LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff. As I watched the video of the officer firing and Finicum falling into the snow, I felt nothing. And I realized that this is not the person I want to be.

In recent weeks, I've found myself struggling to hold onto compassion. Watching stories of bad behavior at a distance makes dehumanizing others pretty easy. Instead of seeing whole human beings with stories and wounds and loved ones, we can reduce entire lives to a single moment or characteristic or event. Then, judging, condemning, or even worse, not caring is a simple next step.

Perhaps even more difficult are those situations when harm is done to us directly and up close. Another person becomes the enemy, and, often in our culture, the enemy is fair game for any harm we want to inflict in return because somehow the enemy is no longer human, no longer like us.

The Dalai Lama tells the story of a Tibetan monk who spent around 18 years in a Chinese prison. When the Dalia Lama met with him, he asked the monk what was the greatest danger he faced while in prison. The monk responded that what he had feared most was losing his compassion for the Chinese.

I keep telling myself this story. Recently, I became the target of a Facebook mobbing for something a few people I don't even know thought I had done. No one talked to me about the issue at all. Instead, they took to social media. People posted ugly, hurtful, and untrue things that threatened my reputation and relationships. And I'm hurt and, I'm angry. And so I keep telling myself the Dalai Lama's story because losing compassion is a great temptation.

Simon Wiesenthal was in a concentration camp when a nurse took him to a room where a Nazi soldier lay dying. The soldier wanted to confess his crimes and have Wiesenthal offer him forgiveness. Wiesenthal let the soldier hold his hand, and he listened for a long while, but he never spoke. Years after, he wondered if he had done the right thing. Another Nazi soldier who was convicted at Nuremberg later wrote that although Wiesenthal had not offered forgiveness, he had shown the dying soldier empathy and compassion. Similarly, the writer continued, Wiesenthal had also shown him compassion when they met in the 1970s.

Closer to home for me, Baptist preacher Will Campbell always pushed folk to be more inclusive in their love. He believed we are supposed to love everyone and reminded the church that that included racists and bigots. After all, he said, "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

Watching the nightly news, I wonder if my heart is big enough to do what Campbell advocated. When I witness a presidential candidate build his campaign on xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, I struggle to find compassion for the crowds cheering him on. Turning them into caricatures is much easier than imagining the individual lives and difficulties that led them to such a moment of intolerance and bigotry.

Yet I believe we are called to no less. Even as we stand against injustice and hatred, we must hold onto our compassion for those who enact it. Our ability to love our enemies may be the one thing that can save us as a human race seemingly bent on destroying one another in word and in deed.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story in which a forged coupon led from disaster to disaster as the ill-fated recipients of the forgery passed its loss along to other unsuspecting people. Only when an innocent recipient was willing to absorb the loss and not pass it along did the destruction end.

So I keep repeating the story of the Tibetan monk, and I cling to my compassion, hoping not to become what I oppose, hoping to be the person who can love, no matter what.