Compassion in Action

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EDDIE O’BRIEN

So I look at metaphysical thought as a series of movements in a dance… movements that we make which we are able to see our errors and so move on. In carrying out this dance, we bring order into the whole universe, not only ourselves. It is through the errors we make that we are able to learn, to change ourselves, and to change everything.
David Bohm

It’s often said that if humanity is to rise to the existential threats it faces, we must put our differences aside. But when we all agree – or pretend to – it becomes harder to make progress. Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.
Excerpt from article, ‘How to have better arguments’ by Ian Leslie*

In considering the subject of freedom of speech, I think there is a propensity for misunderstandings to creep in when attempting to exercise this freedom in practice.

If I acknowledge the importance of other people’s freedom to express their views then it is important that I don’t, in practice as well as in theory, lose sight of the fact that this right also applies to me. Furthermore, fully embracing this freedom means the freedom to express views about each other’s views.

Spurious forms of political correctness can also creep into cultures and add an element of rigidity that can paralyse the fluidity of free-flowing creative conversation. Somebody who expresses strong disagreement of another’s viewpoint may be on the receiving end of projections of judging the other person. Or it may be incorrectly inferred that by criticising another person’s viewpoint one is really resisting the other person’s right to express their view. And I suggest this is a projection that can sometimes occur in dialogue meetings.

I suggest part of the confusion that arises can sometimes be simply due to losing sight of the important difference between the word judgement and the word viewpoint. And this misunderstanding may even be caused by an unconscious fear of the injunction, ‘judge ye not, lest ye yourselves be judged.’ However a judgement is something a judge exercises, because he or she is given the responsibility, power and authority to decide the fate of another person or persons. In other words a judgement means having come to an absolute conclusion, which may even result in a judge sending somebody to prison. Whereas the freedom to express, and then have the opportunity to listen to my own words as I speak them, may be the very thing that helps me avoid the danger of my viewpoint turning into an absolute conclusion, or an impression turning into an oppression. Furthermore when there is an acknowledgement of the importance of challenging each other’s views, then there can be an increased probability that one can become free of being mentally imprisoned by some previously unnoticed rigidity that existed in one’s thinking

I find it hard to imagine that the historical person, Jesus, was someone short on compassion, or someone who would not have encouraged the expression of viewpoints. For example, if we were not rightfully free to express viewpoints that challenge each other’s viewpoints, how then could we be likely to discover the limitations, or even complete inaccuracy, of a viewpoint or belief, that we might be unknowingly rigidly holding on to. This would completely reduce the possibility of discovering errors in my thinking, and not only that, but remain with an undiscovered error that ultimately may lead me in the direction of some danger, not only to myself but to others as well. And this danger might have been avoided if I had been challenged. Also, another important advantage of having our viewpoints challenged is that we may, as a consequence, spontaneously discover that the viewpoint we are holding turns out to be far more valid and meaningful than we had originally even realised.

I find the last sentence in David Bohm’s statement above to be particularly relevant. However, if I don’t discover my errors then that last sentence will have no relevance for me. Furthermore I will then also be unable to avail of the significant opportunity that, paradoxically, falling into illusion had actually provided me with.  Fragmentation can then be considered not as the enemy of wholeness but simply one of the constituents of wholeness. Wholeness implies totality and if fragmentation were not part of this totality then, by implication, wholeness would be incomplete.

Going beyond the realm of viewpoints and into the realm of behaviour. If my behaviour and actions are completely inappropriate, but I am never challenged, how am I then going to learn the life lesson that I need to learn and, consequently, avail of the opportunity that my inappropriate action was actually providing me with?

I think there is a profound wisdom contained within the deeper meaning of the words: love your enemy, and I also suspect significant misunderstanding around the words: turn the other cheek. I don’t claim to even begin to understand the full meaning of the extraordinary mystery called love, but I do suggest that protection is always an outcome of love’s action. If, for example, the bully is not challenged, what chance does the bully have of resolving the confusion that it seems all bullies are caught in? This would imply that there is a contradiction within the claimed holistic nature of the word, compassion, as in this situation compassion’s reach is not extending to the bully. The following personal experience may be helpful to share.

Certain people would arrive into our business in Ireland who would previously have abused me, or at least tried to abuse me. I would tend to greet these people with excessive politeness, as if nothing had happened before. My partner, Katherine, never hesitates to challenge me, thank God. She observed me onetime responding in this way and told me how stupid and naïve she found my attitude. I responded by saying that I can’t do otherwise because I don’t hold grudges. Katherine answered emphatically saying: ‘I am not primarily talking about you. I am talking about them. What chance do you think they have of learning from what they did if you continue to respond to them in that manner?’ Because of what emerged afterwards I discovered Katherine was absolutely right, and I also then understood more deeply that even if I am not bothered about something, it is not just about me only, but also about them. Consequently, Katherine’s intervention had greatly helped me and potentially helped them.

This other statement that Jesus is reported to have said always intrigues me: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. (Matthew 10:34).

The famous Holocaust poem by the German Protestant pastor, Martin Niemoller (in which describes the failure of his fellow travellers in the face of a criminal regime) can be very telling here as well.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Could it be that one of the reasons monstrous cultures are enabled to emerge is because during their earlier stage of development enough people didn’t stand up and be counted? Especially when during this earlier stage, ‘standing up’ is usually far less likely to involve the serious danger that the later descent into cultural degeneration so often will. The warning about the danger of what can happen when good people do nothing is, it seems, a very important warning.

During periods of peacetime, the issues and challenges we face in our lives are usually quite different. However, an excuse that can sometimes be heard for not challenging something is: it would be better to detach and not disturb the peace, or the equally problematic attitude: there is no point in responding because nothing is ever going to change anyway with this situation or person. The following is a good example of the power of individual action.

This is an editorial that recently (April 2021) appeared in the British Telegraph newspaper:

For some six years after the end of the Second World War, British citizens were required to carry identity cards, which had been introduced as an emergency measure in 1939. The State was keen to keep them even after the crisis was over, until a celebrated court case brought their demise. This resulted due to an act of civil disobedience by one Clarence Willcock, the manager of a dry cleaning firm. He refused a request by a policeman to produce his ID papers and was prosecuted. Eventually the case went before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, and he ruled that continuing with unreasonable laws after an emergency has passed ‘tends to turn law-abiding citizens into law breakers.’

Of course it has to be acknowledged that challenging a difficult situations is often not very easy. And for challenge to have a creative outcome it seems a certain degree of sensitivity, respect and timing can often be necessary. However, whatever form confrontation takes, I suspect it is not as problematic as when there is never any confrontation at all.

I suppose the bottom line in all of this is; through finding the courage to stand up and be counted, people can discover that we do need one another, while at the same time avoiding falling into the trap of being needy of one another. And a continuing creative momentum in this direction appears to depend on an ever-increasing amount of caring for one another. I think the Holocaust survivor, Edith Eger, captures the spirit of this with her words: Love is not what you feel but what you do.

However ‘action’ can take many different forms and honesty is probably one of its most important forms. For example, discovering that my reluctance to challenge some situation or person had nothing to do with the reasons I was telling myself, but due to some unacknowledged fear operating in me. And the holistic nature of honesty enables discovery not only of my errors, but also certain strengths I have that I am resisting fully owning. And interestingly, the more I own these strengths the more likely I am to be open to discovering my errors or the limitations in my understanding.

It is said that the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner** repents. I strongly suspect that they also rejoice when error is challenged, either internally or externally

© Eddie O’Brien. thinkingaboutthinking15@gmail.com

*  Guardian newspaper. 16/2/21

**Aramaic is the language most Biblical scholars agree Jesus spoke. The English word sin did not of course exist at the time of Jesus and it is a word with an emotional charge that can trigger the experience of guilt in people. The four Gospels were written in Greek and the Greek word used was hamartia. A very significant event took place in May 1984 over a weekend in the country village of Mickleton in the Cotswold Hills of England. It was attended by a group of 40 people and David Bohm had been invited to discuss his most recent thoughts concerning mind, matter, meaning, the implicate order and a host of other subjects ranging from the problem of the human ego to the nature of God. One of the subjects David talked about was the subject of hamartia, and he said: ‘Hamartia meant missing the point, missing the mark. Now that got translated as sin. And repentance was metanoia, meaning a transformation of the mind, and that got translated as pain.’ (Excerpt from the book, Unfolding Meaning—A Weekend of Dialogue with David Bohm, edited by Donald Factor and published by Foundation Publications).