That kind of cynicism is for pussies.
I think that cynicism is an easy way to get out of having to think of other people. That film really was about so many different things, but one of the chief experiences I had was feeling so much empathy for someone who seemed wrapped up so much in other people’s problems that he was almost incapable of experiencing emapthy himself. Or if he was, he just added the suffering to his own, rather than trying to support anyone else.
It’s easy to do that. To forget that compassion is actually about more than just suffering. I was about to write about how empathy was more important, because it’s less mythic in tone. Then I looked up the definition of compassion.
The fact is that those initial instincts are right. Compassion isn’t about suffering with someone. It’s about feeling enough of someone’s pain to actually do something about it. To feel that call to action.
That or it’s an obscure character from a Doctor Who novel.
Taking on someone’s pain with them does actually help. But what it should really do is spur you on to do something. Make the world better, or at least try and make that person feel better.
I feel like I’ve had to learn empathy, and I’m still pretty self obsessed. We all are. And maybe we only bother to learn out of guilt, or wanting to feel better.
But fuck that attitude.
There’s really no reason to let suffering disaffirm you. You are. So is suffering. I don’t want to say you can use someone elses suffering to make you feel alive, but just that some part of living is taking suffering on board. Learning to live with people is learning to support people, and learning to support yourself so you can do that.
Seeing someone suffering and not being bothered to do something about it is one of the most disaffirming actions you can take. You dehumanise yourself when you do that. Sometimes you have to do it, or you convince yourself you do, that you can only pay attention to a certain circle, friends, family, you. But it hurts when you ignore pain.
I can’t work out if it’s contrary to instinct or not. But it’s there. Why do we evolve to experience compassion? Not even just for humans. You can probably still pull a selfish gene by implying that we evolved to a level where this internal mechanism kicked in to stop us destroying everything.
Or maybe I’m just gonna perpetually remain optimistic about some kind of goal to all this.
If you feel an urge to make the world better, then compassion should be pretty important to you. If you want to make this world better, you should be encouraging and demonstrating compassion.
Fuck those who don’t. Or perhaps do something more compassionate.
Illustration by Andy.