In, Start Where You Are: A compassionate guide to living, Pema Chödrön teaches simple steps and simple tools to find compassion for our own wounds so that we can hold others in compassion too. It is the first step she counsels — unconditional compassion for ourselves leads to unconditional compassion for others.
My eldest daughter and I were having a conversation about judgement. How so often, we look at those who have committed heinous crimes and talk about how we can never forgive them. How we want to rip their faces off, or put them in jail forever and a day because, ‘they did bad and are no good’.
Yet, to truly change the world, to make a world of peace and loving kindness, we must separate ‘the crime’ from the soul. We must see the ‘crime’ as an act of being human, while still holding the human being in compassionate thought.
It is not easy. It is necessary if we are to create a more peaceful, healthy and balanced world.
So often, in condemning those who have harmed others and sentencing them to live in shame we are giving up on them. We are saying, you have no value. You are non-redemptive. You are not worthy. Yet, beneath the crime, beneath the harm they have caused, is the wounded human acting out against the pain they carry from the crimes committed against them. In our giving up on them, we are continuing the cycle of abuse. It leaves little room for awakening, little room for someone to see that what they have done to cause another harm is creating a world of harm all around.
And so the cycle continues.
A few years ago I worked extensively with police officers on ‘homelessness training.’ Every week I’d present to a different group of officers on the facts and myths of homelessness, as well as the impact our perceptions and beliefs about who ‘the homeless’ are have on our ability to work effectively and compassionately with individuals to support them in creating paths away from homelessness.
In the room there were always many perceptions of homelessness. From’homeless = criminal’ to the belief those experiencing homelessness are there because they choose to be there to if they just stopped drinking, doing drugs, had a shower and cleaned up, they’d be able to get on with their lives. These beliefs created a barrier that inhibited everyone from feeling like they were doing their jobs well. For many, the frustration of working with the same person over and over again lead to disconnecting their hearts from their work so that they could do their job and not carry the pain of feeling ineffective, helpless, and a host of other feelings the officers shared in our conversations.
One day, one of the officers angrily told me that I was wrong. That treating ‘those people’ with compassion was not the path. That tough love was the only way to make ‘them’ change.
He yelled, pounded the table, talked over me in his attempts to get me to change my glasses to his view.
I sat in silence. I held the space for compassion to be present in our conversation. I was there to find common ground. Yelling back would not have opened minds. It would only have created bigger barriers.
Another officer in the room spoke up. He told the angry officer to listen up, to hear what I had to say because it was important.
At the end of the session, the second officer apologized for the other man’s behaviour. I told him he was not responsible for someone else’s behaviour. I did wonder about the pain the angry officer had to be carrying to be so volatile in that situation.
Later, I had an opportunity to find out. The district Commander heard about the incident and insisted the officer apologize. We met in the District board room and the officer acknowledged his behaviour was out of line. That he had no right to talk to me in the way he did.
You sound like you care deeply. You sound like you carry a lot of pain on this issue, I told him.
And he began to talk. He told me about his brother, an alcoholic, who died on the streets. He told me about his pain and frustration in not being able to help him. How he just wants the best for those he serves, and how he feels helpless.
He talked for an hour and I listened. Deeply.
In the end, we hugged. We had connected through our shared human condition.
To this day, I carry deep compassion and respect for this man. He cares. Deeply. His lack of compassion for himself, his lack of acknowledgement of his own pain, stood in the way of his heart breaking open in love instead of shutting down in fear.
We all do it.
We all feel deeply and then, to protect our delicate hearts, to soothe our aching souls, we build walls and barriers in our minds that we believe will keep us safe.
And in the process, we shut off our capacity to see that those who hurt others are hurting.
Desperate people do desperate things.
Hurting people hurt others.
It does not make ‘wrong’ right. It does mean to heal it, to stop it, we must stop condemning and begin holding ourselves accountable for how we respond.
I wonder what a world of difference we could make if instead of condemning, we chose compassion for ourselves and one another?
Let’s all begin where we are and see what happens next!