Along with many other bloggers today I’m talking about compassion. What does it mean to be compassionate? I think we can only be compassionate if we can put ourselves in another persons shoes and imagine what it’s like to be living their life.
In fiction – we have to do this. We may be writing about characters who have nothing to do with our own experience of life, but if we want believable characters, we need to put ourselves in their position and understand what makes them ‘tick’.
As someone with disabilities, I’ve come across some thoughtful, compassionate people, like the neighbour who will help me get shopping. I’ve also had the experience of being bullied, by people who should be caring, such as nursing staff. Not many people are deliberately mean, but if we’ve had a difficult, tiring day, then sometimes our ‘default position’ takes over.
‘It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.’ (David Foster Wallace: This is Water)
I know if we are trying to find a disabled parking place, and I see someone who looks fit get out of a car in the last remaining space, my default position is: ‘Look at that person. Bet they haven’t got a blue badge.’ Then I realise what I’ve done. I’ve made a judgement without putting myself in their position. I don’t know what their disability is – they could have severe epilepsy or have cancer.
Likewise on the way home, my usually calm, rational friend might get angry at the car trying to overtake her, She makes judgements about the type of person based on the car and their driving. We all do this. Again its a judgement – the car driver might be rushing as his daughter could be in hospital or his wife in labour.
People might look at someone who is overweight and think they are lazy. Another stereotypical judgement. What they don’t know is this person might have a medical condition that makes them overweight, or be comfort eating due to the loss of their parents.
People might see someone out of work, and think they are a scrounger, but this person may have worked all their life, and lost their job in the economic crash. They might be studying or retraining to get the skills needed to get back to work.
When we change what has meaning, we change what we see…[Wallace ] can do this because he recognises his ‘natural default’ way of seeing is not his only way of seeing. It is a choice. (How to Fly a Horse – Kevin Ashton)
Western philosophy has often conditioned us to see things as black or white, yin and yang (as opposed to yin-yang). However, we don’t have to see things this way. We can see them as connected.
At the start of This is Water by David Foster Wallace, he introduces two young fish who are swimming along when they meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them, and asks,’how’s the water?’ The two young fish swim for a bit longer before they turn to each other and say, ‘what the hell is water?’
We are the fish, swimming in a sea of judgements, and assumptions which we at first don’t notice. The next step is to know why you assume, or judge the way you do. What is your default setting? Then you can start to suspend those assumptions and try to see things in a different way.
Is it easy? No it isn’t and I don’t always manage it. However, when I do, by changing my default setting – I feel like I’m giving myself a break, as well as being more compassionate and caring towards others
Compassion is all about our reactions. To reach out to a stranger, someone who challenges our beliefs, or our assumptions means examining why we think like we do, and then changing our view.