by Nick Inman
Our usual response to terrorism is a mixture of outrage, condemnation and incomprehension. It makes no sense. Terrorists act in a way that is alien to us: kidnapping and beheading innocent people, firing sub-machine guns around bars and detonating explosive belts in crowded places? If there is an explanation it must be that they are irrational, evil, and/or mad.
We are indignant but worse we are impotent. What else can we do except cower at home and let the authorities respond on our behalf by tightening security and dropping bombs?
Anyone who considers himself or herself “spiritual,” as I do, cannot stop there, seething with righteous but futile anger and hate. That is no way to nurture peace. The first thing we have to do is decouple our automatic stimulus/reaction mechanism and then think how else we might respond.
The Dalai Lama urges us to seek the resolution of conflict by non-violent means beginning with prayer and compassion – not just for the victims but for the terrorists as well, whose hearts, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, are “not yet capable of loving.”
Compassion for the ultra-violent is a noble ideal and a good way to start to do something about terrorism. I am sure some great souls are capable of slipping into it immediately there is a new attack but for most of us it is not that easy. Compassion is complicated and sets many traps for us. It is too easy to proclaim compassion in words without doing it; or to use it as an excuse for passivity; or do it as a religious or ideological obligation without meaning it; or to take a knowing-wise stance as if bestowing charity. The word needs some unpacking if we are to adopt it in an effective and sustainable way.
What do I need in order to enter a state of compassion? I need more than a theoretical grasp of cosmology: that we are all one in one great system that works perfectly if only we can perceive it, that love solves all problems eventually etc.
I need to understand certain things, especially my own place in the universe. And I have to do this on my own. Understanding is always individual act. It cannot be done collectively, in public. I cannot be told how to do it by politicians or news reporters.
Understanding is hard work and it is not risk-free. I will be required to leave my comfort zone. If I am to understand the terrorist I must abandon any notion of superiority. If I tell myself, “I would never do that which he has done…” I am engaged in projecting and judging the other. I must put this belief aside for the moment, that he is different to me in his very nature, and seek a position of genuine humility.
Compassion only begins when I put myself in the shoes of the other, regardless of superficial religious, cultural or political differences. If I am part of the same universe, the same humanity as the terrorist, I must join with him at some point, on, as it were, the same level.
Only by giving up (at least temporarily) some safe ground – my smug, self-righteousness and my most cherished beliefs about human nature – can I hope to close the gap between myself and any other person.
I must give up the reassuring mechanisms that keep the world at a distance, to which I have grown attached. I must curb my prejudices and stop classifying other people by the groups they belong to and the labels that are easy to pin on them – maybe which they want to have pinned on them. I must suspend any notion that my morality is simple or absolute. Finally, I must be willing to ask myself any question that I have for him? If, for instance, I want to know “Why did you act in a certain way?” I must have an explanation for my own behaviour. If I want to discuss his attitude to death, I must be willing to stare hard at my own,
Only by clearing the ground in this way can we get down to a conversation, individual to individual.
Ideally, what I want is to sit down and talk to the terrorist whose actions have so offended me in the past and to the terrorist who may still be to come. That, of course, is impossible for several reasons. It is tempting to try to think myself into the head of some “typical” terrorist but that is absurd: every man or woman who I call a terrorist is an individual acting from particular motives in particular circumstances. A generalisation only ever leads to a general and vague understanding and that will not help me find compassion.
Fortunately I have a resource close to me. Myself, the potential terrorist. The way into someone’s mind is through my own. To understand him I need only look inside me. I need not assume anything about him. All I need to do is explore the space between us, setting out from the only possible starting point and moving towards him.
Why, I want to know, am I not in his position and he mine? Supposing I was to find myself in his situation right now, how might I have got there? If he is able to want to take a specific action, I am capable of wanting to do it to. I contain the capacity for tenderness and love, or for being a monster. What course of his life brought him to his fate?
To be born into an incarnation on planet earth is to be given the same basic ingredients of life. These are, of course, immediately played upon by circumstance. It is this that creates the great variety of the world; it is this that engenders everything I do not like. But for all the diversity, all of us grow up facing the same set of issues that include:
- How do I cope with the biological urges of my body
- Who gives me my identity? How much of it can I choose or change? How do I balance the “in-here” me with the “out-there?”
- How do I make sense of my life: what can I do with it to make a contribution to the world?
- What do I mean by happiness, how important is it to pursue it and how do I pursue it?
- What do I think about other people – do I need their approval or love – and what are my moral values? Do I adopt those of my family, the society I live in, the religion I was born into – or do I dare make choices that those around me disapprove of? What should be may attitude to the needs and rights of other people?
- What is my relationship with the supernatural, particularly the divine? This question has two aspects: how I experience this in private, inside, and how I experience it in public.
- To what degree am I attached to the world? How detached can I be? Is it all as real as the say it is? What does and does not matter?
- How do I handle fear; how do I prove my courage; and how do I approach death – my own and that of others? What cause is worth sacrificing myself for?
- What do I think of traditions and its received wisdoms? Do I accept them without question or rebel against them?
- Am I capable of hope? If the world is becoming more as I would like it to be, am I able to see it?
- How can I express the energy that wells up inside of me? how can I have power over myself and over others?
There are many other such issues that all human beings either ponder on or try to ignore. Each of us deals with them as best we can, from the moment of self-consiciousness to the moment of our extinction. Inside, we try to build a model to live by and with determination it can become coherent and functional. But it may just seem – to myself and to others – that it is incoherent and dysfunctional. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
It is quite a challenge being human. I like to think I manage it better than someone who resorts to armed barbarism – that is my working assumption – but I shouldn’t let my overconfidence cloud my assessment of myself and the other.
We are not that different in the core of our ambition. Each of us arrives at the same point: I want the world to see things my way which I insist is the best or right way. He is the same.
Of course, we radically part company, the terrorist and I, the moment that he makes it his mission to impose his world view on other people by killing and destroying; and I make it my mission to talk peace and reconciliation, however impossible things seem.
But there is another difference between us. I, at least, have a choice of how I respond to his intimidation. Even if I disapprove of his actions, I need not sever the thread that connects us by being born into the same species.
Maybe I am just lucky with the conditions in which I live; or maybe it has nothing to do with them but I can decidee to strive to learn, however difficult that may be, instead of resorting to murder and self-annihilation.
In the short term at least (and, I would argue in the long run) there is nothing good for anyone in terrorism and there will always be sensible public measures we have to take to defend ourselves against it and cope when it happens. But we need not let that blind us to the challenge it presents each of us with personally. Do I go along with the herd in the wake of a terrorist atrocity, accept defeat and talk defiance? Or do I respond as if it is a challenge to my core beliefs, to examine them and if necessary reaffirm them as part of my continuing spiritual awakening?
About the author:
Nick Inman (born in Yorkshire in 1956) is a writer and photographer specialising in France and Spain. in 1984-85 he spent nine formative months living with the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is the author of A Guide to Mystical France: Secrets, Mysteries, Sacred Sites, as well as Politipedia, The Optimist’s Handbook and Who on Earth Are You? He lives in southwest France.
A willingness to see the needs of others and lend a helping hand can boost a person’s everyday happiness and make life more satisfying.
But sometimes the world’s problems can seem so overwhelming – and each person’s ability to solve them so limited – that “compassion fatigue” sets in.
Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon commonly found among people such as nurses, psychologists and first responders, says entrepreneur and philanthropist Tim McCarthy, author of “Empty Abundance: Finding Meaning Through Mindful Giving” (mindfulgiving.org).
“It boils down to gradual lessening of compassion over time – becoming numb to the painful experiences of others,” McCarthy says.
Even average people who volunteer for a worthy cause or provide care to a loved one can experience it, says McCarthy. And warding it off is important, he says, because compassion fatigue may lead to such symptoms as stress, anxiety, hopelessness and a negative outlook on life.
It’s the opposite of “helper’s high,” that euphoric feeling that can lift people psychologically when they perform acts of kindness.
“As great as my helper’s high can be, I will crash when I become compassion fatigued,” McCarthy says.
There’s no sure-fire way of avoiding compassion fatigue, but McCarthy offers these suggestions that could help.
• Hold your compassion lightly and joyfully. Never take yourself too seriously, he adds. “It’s unlikely you will save the world any more than I will, but it is likely – no, it’s guaranteed – that if you only do what you can and do it gladly, adjusting as you learn from your mistakes, life’s moments of both joy and pain will be more fulfilling.”
• Trust but verify. President Ronald Reagan famously expressed this Russian proverb as his philosophy when it came to monitoring an arms treaty with the Soviet Union. The approach works equally well when deciding how and when to help a person or organization, McCarthy says.
Sadly, in addition to the truly needy, there are those who will try to use you to get money or some other type of support when they don’t deserve anyone’s help, he says.
“There will always be fakers and fakers will wear you out,” he says. Try not to let them by doing a little research to make sure those you help are worthy of your efforts.
• Unless you are trained for it, leave the direct service to the professionals. Some problems are best solved by those who have been properly trained. Not everyone has the right emotional makeup to deal with some of the intense suffering that goes on in the world.
That doesn’t mean sit it out and do nothing, McCarthy says. The rest of us can find plenty of ways to help, such as through donations or volunteering for duties that are more in line with our expertise or capabilities.
“Compassion fatigue can be reduced by doing a fearless inventory of what we’re good at and what we’re not, verifying what we’re told and by remembering we will help but never solve this broken world,” McCarthy concludes.
About Tim McCarthy
Tim McCarthy’s first business, WorkPlace Media, reaches more than 70 million employees with incentives for clients such as Starbucks, Wrigley and Macy’s. He sold the company in 2007 and recently bought it back. In 2003, he partnered with his son, Tim Patrick McCarthy, to open Raising Cane’s of Ohio, which had 13 stores with over $30 million in revenue in 2014. McCarthy, author of “Empty Abundance” (mindfulgiving.org), earned his bachelor’s in political science and MBA from Ohio State University. In 2008, he received the Fisher Alumnae Community Service Award and was named an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
If you feel that your stress levels are constantly rising, you’re in good company. The evidence of an anxiety epidemic is all around: We are busier and more self-absorbed than ever, with less time to devote to others. Even when we do have breaks in our schedules, our fuses are short and we lose our minds if everything isn’t perfect. Compassion seems to be on its way out—and John Dowd Jr. wants to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing any further.
“I used to be a busy, stressed-out professional who didn’t have time for anyone—and then I was laid off from my job,” says Dowd, author of Heroes, Mentors, and Friends: Learning from Our Spiritual Guides (Balboa Press, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-45255-515-7, $13.99, www.johndowdjr.com). “Being in such a vulnerable position made me realize what it felt like to be the person who couldn’t get anyone to call back, and who felt like the world was against him.”
But during the process of getting back on his feet, Dowd says, there were certain people who stood out from the crowd because they purposefully helped to build him up—or gave him a break when he needed it the most.
“I realized that to be really meaningful, acts of compassion don’t have to be grand gestures,” he comments. “More often, they’re easy, everyday acts of kindness. If we all commit to being a little more compassionate, I think we can make a real difference in our collective stress and anxiety levels.”
Here, Dowd shares six ways for you to weave more compassion into your everyday life:
Ask yourself if what happened is really that big of a deal. In a recent interview on The Rhode Show (you can watch it here), Dowd tells the following story: “Not too long ago, I was quietly resting in my car while waiting to meet a friend for lunch. As I was sitting there with my eyes closed, a woman pulled into the spot on my right and DINGED my passenger door as she opened her driver’s side door! The impact was hard enough to rock my car a bit. What’s worse, she saw me in the car and walked away.
“In situations like this, our first reaction is to listen to our judging mind and retaliate,” he continues. “For me, that probably would have been chasing the woman down and berating her. But through mindful practices like meditation, yoga, or quiet time in nature each week, we can move from the judging mind’s REACTION to a compassionate heart’s OBSERVATION. Specifically, compassionate observation gives us time to remove anger and judgment from the equation, helping us remain poised and in control. With practice we can actually choose how to react. So calmly, I opened my car door and politely asked the woman if she was aware of her actions. She stopped and gave me a heartfelt apology, commenting on how ‘she was having a very bad day.’
“Aggravating situations like these crop up every day, but in the long run, they’re really not important,” Dowd concludes. “Choosing not to engage in a negative interaction is a great way to show compassion to the other person and to yourself. After all, working yourself into a bad mood that might stick around all day doesn’t do you any favors. In my case, I like to think that the woman’s day got a little better. And as for me, choosing compassion over anger allowed me to enjoy lunch with my friend, instead of stewing over my dinged car door.”
Think about how you’re coming across. When you’re aggravated or annoyed, it’s all too easy to let your in-the-moment emotions take control of your brain. According to Dowd, that’s why you might hear something like this at a restaurant: “I waited an hour for my meal—which I’m paying a lot for, by the way—and my vegetables are still undercooked! What’s wrong with this place? You can’t even get the simplest things right!”
“At some point and to some degree, we have all been that jerk,” Dowd points out. “It’s not that we’re bad people; it’s just that we get bogged down in the principle of the thing. That’s why, if you’re striving to be more compassionate, I encourage you to remain aware of how your behavior might look to an outsider. If an observer might say, ‘That guy needs to get over himself,’ you should probably tone down your response.”
Step in to help. If you encounter someone who’s stressed, worried, overwhelmed, or going through a rough patch, don’t turn a blind eye. Ask yourself what you can do to make that person’s day a little better.
“This can be as simple as giving a coworker a word of encouragement before a tough meeting, helping a mom with energetic twin toddlers carry grocery bags to her car, or providing a listening ear to a friend whose relationship just ended,” Dowd says. “I’ve found that asking myself how I would like to be treated if I were in the other person’s shoes usually makes the path forward clear.”
Stop thinking like a victim. When you have a victim mindset, nothing is your fault—and you believe the world is out to get you. If that’s your attitude, Dowd points out, you’re automatically casting others in the role of villain. And who wants to show the bad guy (or gal) any compassion?
“When you change your victim mindset and start to give others the benefit of the doubt, you’ll probably start to see that other people aren’t out to get you—they’re struggling with their own stress and problems!” he explains. “Often, that realization gives you the emotional space you need to choose empathy and compassion, instead of automatically lashing out to protect your own interests.”
Remember when people gave you a break. We don’t always get what we deserve—and sometimes that’s a good thing. Have you ever made a costly mistake at work, only to be given a second chance by your boss? Have you ever been pulled over for a minor traffic infraction, only to be let go with a warning?
“Take a few minutes and remind yourself of times when other people have showed you compassion,” Dowd instructs. “Reminding yourself that you aren’t perfect—and that others have treated you kindly despite your mistakes—will have an immediate impact on how you respond to other people. Yes, even when they ‘deserve’ a harsh response.”
Go easier on yourself. If you’re like many people, you set high standards for yourself—and you beat yourself up relentlessly when you don’t live up to them. The next time you slip up, Dowd encourages you to examine the mental dialogue going on in your head. Would you berate a friend as harshly as you’re berating yourself? Would you condemn his mistake and highlight every little component of what went wrong? Or would you offer that friend comfort and sympathy?
“Don’t forget to be compassionate toward yourself, too,” Dowd reminds. “If you lack self-love, your unhappiness will manifest in how you treat others, whether you’re aware of it or not.”
“I’ll be honest: At first, treating others with compassion will probably get you a lot of strange looks and ‘Are you serious?’ reactions,” Dowd shares. “But that’s okay, because you’ll be surprised by how many positive connections you will make and by how good you feel.
“Plus, reacting with compassion is actually a smarter choice for your short- and long-term emotional and physical health,” he continues. “Science is beginning to prove that regulating our emotions through positive social behaviors like compassion and giving, along with adding well-being practices like meditation, yoga, exercise, and good sleep, can have an enormous positive effect on long-term heart and brain health. For example, choosing compassion can release stress, allowing better sleep. And science has now shown that we really need eight hours of sleep to combat Alzheimer’s. More and more studies are emerging showing that positive social behaviors that regulate our emotions can add years to our lives!
“And don’t forget: What goes around comes around,” he concludes. “Showing compassion now, especially when you don’t have to, can make a big difference in how you’re treated down the road.”
About the Author:
Author-speaker John Dowd Jr. is the author of Heroes, Mentors, and Friends: Learning from Our Spiritual Guides. He is a veteran 30-year on-air broadcaster and program director with experience in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and Hartford. Currently, you can hear John’s music show on SiriusXM ’70s on 7 weekdays from 12-6 p.m. On weekends John’s talk show, Heroes, Mentors, and Friends, airs around the world on iHeartRadio.com
To learn more and to contact John Dowd Jr., please visit www.johndowdjr.com.