I read a book called Being Peace a long time ago when I was a student here at SEMO. This was probably 1992, just before I graduated. The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist priest named Thich Nhat Hanh. I've read other books by him, and his words really emulate what it is to be a compassionate individual towards everyone. One of the examples that he gave that really caught my attention was in regards to the Vietnamese refugees who are fleeing Vietnam and were being attacked by Thai pirates. His analogy was the following:
He mentions that it's quite easy to feel sympathy and compassion for the Vietnamese refugees because they are being harmed. It’s easy to feel compassion for the oppressed. He adds that the ones for whom we perhaps need to feel more compassion are the Thai pirates because we don't know how they came to be pirates and commit the horrible they were committing. Did they ever know love in their life? Were they fed, were they cared for? He seems to be saying that while we may dislike the actions of the person; this should not prohibit us from feeling compassion for the oppressor. This is also not saying that there shouldn't be punishment, but even within the punishment there should be compassion for the individual.
This is so hard to put into practice as human beings that live within cultures that find punitive actions to be the primary reaction to those who break our laws. We often see others as evil, useless, and simply repugnant. Individuals do commit repugnant and evil acts. Genocide, lynching, rape, torture, and what other horrific act we could mention are not acceptable in our societies and we punish the wrongdoers. But we have at the basis of our law the ideal that the punishment should be humane. This is where we often fall short. We often feel evildoers should simply not exist and are no deserving of our compassion.
In our political discourse we are finding the same reactions. People who think differently from us are now seen as evil or unapproachable. The violence that used to be reserved for truly violent acts is now being directed at people who express a different opinion. I have been guilty of this myself. There are some current thoughts that I find repugnant because they are erasing the humanity of many of those who live around us. They are unjust and commit social violence that often results in physical, emotional and verbal violence.
I have an example I’d like to share given the recent announcement that DACA will be repealed. This has distressed me greatly because I have undocumented friends who were able to pursue their education and make marvelous contributions because of DACA. I also have friends who are ineligible for DACA for various reasons and are simply counted as undocumented labor. I read in one woman's response on the issue that she considered undocumented individuals to be committing a sin and her vehemence against them completely disgusted me. My initial reaction was to disparage this woman in my mind because she felt they should be eradicated from our land however possible.
So I made myself stop and think about why she has this opinion. She has probably been told this by somebody who doesn't understand the life of an undocumented individual. It could be that she has only listened to discussion that sees undocumented individuals as evil people who come to leech off of our system and are therefore unworthy of our compassion. It is most likely that she has this opinion out of ignorance, of not having known anyone who is undocumented and not being fully aware of the contributions to our culture and society by undocumented individuals. She probably doesn't understand that each year literally thousands of people die trying to reach a place where they feel they could thrive, be successful, and be safe. She probably doesn't realize that these people are on the margins, silently doing their work that feeds us, that gives us places to live, and that keeps our spaces clean. She probably doesn't realize that these people have moms and dads and children, that they have stories and histories that go way beyond their current circumstances. She doesn't understand that most of these people do not receive any assistance outside of perhaps public education for their children that they work very hard and in many cases send a significant portion of their meager incomes back home for family members that couldn't make the journey. She doesn't realize that these people come from many places, that there is no one source of origin for undocumented individuals. She probably doesn't realize that these people aren't aware that they do have rights and that they are afraid to speak up for these rights for fear of being incarcerated and removed from their families, from their homes, from the communities where they have learned to thrive.
In the end, I did feel compassion for her because while her ideas are uninformed and incorrect, she has been guided to think this way. Shouting at her or spewing hatred of her will not change what she thinks; it will not inform her. When we shout or lash out, we may feel better for a moment, but nothing in the situation is changed. In fact, we have only entrenched ourselves more in our own bubble and in our own ignorance. I responded in a way that hopefully showed her another perspective and informed her.
So what I will try to do as I move forward, when I read something that disgusts me, when I hear something that disheartens me, when I hear something that just makes me want to lose all hope in humanity, I will try to stop myself. I will try to remember that while I am certain that these ideas are wrong because they go against human dignity that each human deserves, I must try to feel compassion for those who repulse me or anger me, to remember that they are human too.
This is why I am happy that I have taught this to my children. They keep me honest but not in a judgmental way. They call me out when I need it and I thank them. I am learning how to take a stand in non-destructive ways. It is a process that will take my whole life and I will never perfect, but I can keep striving.