Saturday, February 04, 2006

In Pursuit of Tranquil Compassion

The lovely comments that my recent post "Another Damn Melancholic Philosopher" solicited have me thinking a lot about the relationship between anxiety and compassion. One of my few talents is the ability to really listen to people, to hear their story, and then, help them feel validated.

I like to draw people out, figure out why they care about what they care about and why the hate what they hate. Listening to peoples' stories has been the single most important catalyst to my moral development and the moral positions that I take on issues. While some people inherit strict moral codes or principles from their church or family, I inherited compassion.

After talking with my father today, I realized that a great deal of my compassion comes from him. This is a deliciously bizarre realization. For the most part, my father and I do not speak. When I was growing up, however, I spoke to my father about everything. I was his favorite companion, and he would talk to me about philosophy, religion, politics and, above all human excellence. My father worked very hard in his life to become a doctor, and at 66 he is still excelling in his craft.

He called me today to ask about my insomnia. He had sent me a brief email asking how I was, and I responded that my insomnia was unbearable. He called today to follow up, and when I described my symptoms he laughed and said: "you inherited that from me." I had no idea that my father sleeps restlessly or that he is haunted at night by his patients. He wanted me to see that my deep concern for people, and my hope to make them happy, was part of what made it difficult to sleep.

Compassion for others has always been the talent most likely to undo me. I have let people in that I shouldn't have. I have opened my heart to wounded others who used my kindness to their own advantage. I am not big on the whole rhetoric of "personal responsibility," since it tends to simplify the complex webs that we find ourselves in with others. But, at this point, I do tend to hold myself more responsible when I find that I have allowed another to take advantage of my kindness.

When I was younger, I didn't have the skills to prevent this. I trusted others too much, I wanted to believe their stories, and I wanted almost pathologically to ease their pain. The desire to alleviate the suffering of others is certainly a family trait. And, it has been this family trait that tore my family apart.

My Dad's whole identity has been bound up with wanting to please others, and because that is such a burdensome task, he coped by drinking. He sought out ways to soothe himself from the demands that others' infinite needs placed upon him. He was horrible at saying "no" to anyone, and pretty hopeless at accepting any gifts from others without feeling like he had to give them something in return.

Above I said that the realization that much of my compassion comes from my father was a deliciously bizarre one. This is because most women, I believe, inherit their self-sacrificing and pathological compassion from their mothers. Fathers tend to be the aloof ones. My mother was and is, by far, much stronger and better at drawing boundaries. All of my courage and grit to stand up to injustice and the larger powers trying to deprive me of my voice comes from her. My father hated confrontation, and always sought out the least friction possible in fractious situations.

The problem with caring about others, but not being clear about what people can or cannot have from you, is that you wind up with a whole lot of anxiety. Usually this occurs when you have finally said "enough" to someone who has been using you. When you say "no more" to someone pretty used to getting what they want from you, their first response is to get pretty damn angry and aggressive with you. And, in my experience, such people tend to know how to hit below the belt. They call you names, or defame your character to others.

The anxiety comes from feeling out of control. But, we are destined to be out of control for much of what goes on in our lives. We simply have no power over what people think or do to us. We only have power over what kind of person we let others turn us into.

The other day my colleague reminded me how much wisdom is to be sought in the Stoics. Suffering and cruelty are unavoidable if you are human. No amount of good, rational thinking on the issue is likely to give you the power to change others who are hurting you. The reason I am willing to take responsibility for others' hurting me now, at this age, is that I know better than to expect it won't happen. You cannot get out of this life without difficult transactions with others.

I do think it is possible to maintain compassion for those who, if you let to close to you will hurt you. Epictetus is my favorite "go to" Stoic. I spent time rereading the Enchridion this afternoon, which I believe to be one of the best "self-help" books alive.

The Stoics defined evil as suffering and pain. The goal of life was to avoid suffering or pain. To avoid evil, one had to learn how to accept what was out of your control and focus only on what was in your power to achieve. Those who think they can actually root out suffering from the world are the ones most likely to find themselves in pain (awash in evil). This is why compassion seems so tied to anxiety.

And yet, we do not have to give up compassion in the pursuit of a more tranquil life. We have to give up the belief that our compassion for others is enough to save them from their pain.

I will end this post with fragment 42, from the Enchridion:

When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, "It seemed so to him."