Compassion is hard

Dear President Trump,

Recently I was talking with one of my colleagues about how the terms loving-kindness and compassion are often used interchangeably. He was making a strong argument for greater precision and I was trying to follow, but not really understanding the big deal so I finally said as much. He explained that loving-kindness is about sending positive intentions to oneself and others while compassion is endeavoring to feel and understand another’s suffering. Actually, typing it out I see that it should have been a fairly easy distinction to grasp, but at the time it just wasn’t.

I don’t know how many days later (i.e., I don’t have an exact date or place so if you want, you can mock me and insist it didn’t happen….), but there was a moment when I viscerally felt the difference, when I realized how very much harder it is emotionally to allow myself to be fully present and feeling pain along with someone who is suffering. Even though I can’t know exactly what another’s pain is like, feeling those sorts of feelings in response to their suffering automatically taps into my own well of historic suffering and likely gives me a decent sense of what they are going through.

I remember now that for Lent this past year I practiced tonglen daily (breathing in others’ pain and breathing out comfort of some kind) so clearly in the past I did have a clue that there’s a difference between loving-kindness and compassion practices. I might be letting myself off the hook too easily, but I think the fact that I was confused by them again points to how hard it is to stay in that more vulnerable, tender spot needed for compassion, particularly for people one doesn’t know and especially for people one doesn’t like. For example, it’s much easier to send you and people who support you wishes for safety, happiness, health, and peace than it is to attempt to come alongside you all to get acquainted with your suffering. It’s hard, at least for me, to see beyond the jeering faces of the people flanking you at rallies to catch a glimpse of what pains them, but if we’re ever going to come in from our extreme poles and meet somewhere useful, I’m going to have to try.

May we be safe to be tender towards those we don’t understand or like.
May we be happy when we feel some sort of connection with those we’ve “othered.”
May we find healthy both/and ways of honoring ourselves even as we honor the others’ humanity.
May we the people make peace with one another in spite of you.

Tracy Simpson

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