Compassion

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book, Compassion. This is the second volume of The Three Mountains.

This book follows the trail of compassion. It offers poetic insight, stunning photography, and the wisdom of ancient philosophy. The book reflects on the meaning of compassion in a world that contains both beauty and suffering. It will provoke, invigorate, and make you wonder.

The book weaves spiritual teachings together with folktales and natural history in a way that surprises and inspires. Compassion involves laughter, chaos, tears, and joy. Compassion is about overflowing and becoming broader.

Excerpt: “The instinct to share is primordial. No one wants to drink or dance alone. We share the wine because happiness and sadness need company. We toast the illusions of life, laughing out loud at the glowing red of sunset and the silver light of moonrise. We toast the illusions of life, singing hymns to lost friends, dead dogs, and silent grandmothers. Here’s to the eyes that once saw this beauty, now closed forever. Here’s to the child whose eyes have just opened.”

Compassion and Suffering: Tears and Laughter

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2021

Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. Let’s seek it this Easter

Compassion is celebrated by most of the world’s moral traditions. Compassion is the source of human connection. Some think it even goes beyond that. Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. But philosophers worry that compassion is too passive, subjective and melancholic.

The Dalai Lama is an important voice of compassion. He explains that as compassion grows, we develop “both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain.” Compassion is more than passively feeling the other’s pain. It is also an active response that wants to alleviate suffering.

Buddhist teachings about compassion are often oriented around suffering. A colleague of the Dalai Lama’s, Thupten Jinpa, explains, “At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition— our experience of pain and sorrow.”

This is obviously important in a world that includes far too much pain. If we were all more concerned with the suffering of others, the world would be a better place. And while this focus on suffering can seem gloomy, the Buddhists connect compassion with tranquility and happiness. The Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”

This may seem paradoxical. But it is only a paradox if compassion is understood as shared suffering. Melancholic compassion is only half of the story. Compassion is also at play in laughter and love-making. Compassion shares joy as well as tears.

To keep compassion too tightly bound to suffering and grief is like having Good Friday without Easter. The point of the Easter story is not to wallow in the darkness, but to re-emerge into the light.

Compassion shares “passion” or emotional experience with others. Our passions are not only negative. Grief, mourning, and despair are certainly important emotions. But wonder and delight are also powerful experiences. Compassion moves us to share the passions of the other person, in sadness and in joy.

Compassion feels good because we are social beings. The receptiveness of compassion is wired into our brains by evolution. As social beings, we enjoy sharing in play, poetry, music, and in the rituals of social life. We do better when we do things in common. Compassionate activity overcomes loneliness and despair. It also allows us to share in playful fun.

One recipe for happiness is found here: if you want to be happy, hang out with happy people who are doing happy things. Happiness — like sadness — is contagious.

Compassion is only melancholic when it is confused with pity. Pity dwells in the negative. We don’t pity people who are doing well. Pity is reserved for the suffering.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant warned against pity. Compassionate pity can “infect” us with the suffering of others, he said. If I suffer because another person is suffering, the result is simply more suffering.

Compassion is better understood as a natural urge to help those who suffer. And while this urge can lead us to act, Kant thought it was insufficient. Sometimes our compassionate urges prevent us from doing our duty. This occurs, for example, when mercy prevents us from punishing those who deserve to be punished. Kant thought that compassion had to be guided by justice.

A similar problem holds for the famous Golden Rule. Love of the neighbor is important. But this does not mean you ought to give the neighbor anything he wants. Love without justice is blind. But justice without mercy is cruel.

A further problem occurs when compassion becomes intrusive. Sometimes we want companionship in our suffering. We cry better (and laugh better) in the company of friends. But sometimes, we simply want to be left alone.

Of course, compassionate people understand all of this. Truly compassionate people have a knack for knowing what is needed. They hold us when we need to cry. They offer laughter when the time is right. They leave us alone when we need solitude. And they try to connect justice and mercy in a world where suffering is common.

Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.

Gratitude, Gladness, and Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2020

Gratitude lubricates social relations. To say thanks is to express gladness. But gratitude is also a spiritual capacity that lightens and energizes. Some call it the wine of the soul. When we drink it, we want to share it with others.

Social rituals revolve around thankfulness. We thank people throughout the day for small favors. We thank dinner guests for passing the salt. We thank the guy holding open the door. Entertainers thank the audience for their applause, which is how the audience says thanks. We even thank people we pay — the clerks, waiters, and bartenders.

Behind social grace lies a deeper spirit of gratitude. Gratitude is sincere and heartfelt gladness. It is humble, hopeful, and happy. The opposite of gratitude is greed and arrogance. Ungrateful people want the world to serve their selfishness. Whatever they get leaves them grumpy because they always want more.

Gratitude is content with whatever comes. The positivity of gratitude is psychologically beneficial. Gratitude helps us manage stress, discover patience, and see opportunity. There is a positive feedback loop that comes from acknowledging good things.

Gladness produces gratitude while gratitude gladdens. In a dark world, gratitude opens a glowing glade of gladness. Grateful spirits glow. They hold back the darkness by kindling energy and light.

Nietzsche once said that great art begins in the overflowing fullness of gratitude. Creative energy flows from gratitude. The eyes of gratitude are welcoming. The arms of the grateful are ready to build and embrace. The artists of gratitude affirm life and the universe itself.

Gratitude may be cultivated. One technique is to keep a gratitude journal or to otherwise count your blessings. Recalling the things that make you glad can help you overcome negativity. Gratitude grows when we recognize that life is a gift, an opportunity, and a precious good.

In religious traditions gratitude is ultimately directed toward God. When George Washington created Thanksgiving in 1789 he called upon Americans to offer thanks to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The American Thanksgiving feast is part of a long tradition of giving thanks to God.

But the attitude of gratitude can be experienced outside of any particular religious framework. We might call this existential gratitude. One can be thankful to be alive without thanking anyone in particular. Religious people may find this to be empty. But secular and non-religious people can benefit from existential gratitude.

Gratitude is linked to humility and wonder. Grateful people recognize that their gladness is not entirely their own doing. Fate, luck, and history determine our fortunes. Your existence is the product of a chance meeting of your parents. Your continued life depends upon an ecosystem, a social system, and a legal and political system that are beyond your control.

In religious terms, our existence is a miraculous gift from God. In nonreligious terms, our existence is something to wonder about — a unique opportunity to make meaning in a vast and empty universe.

But perhaps all of this only makes sense for people who are actually thriving. What about the sick, disabled, poor, grieving, and oppressed? Should they be grateful as well?

Well, there is hope that everyone can discover gratitude in the middle of suffering and loss. But frankly, it is rude to suggest that the downtrodden should be grateful for what they’ve got. Other people’s gratitude is none of our business.

But when we recognize that others may have less to be grateful about, we move beyond gratitude toward compassion. If gratitude helps us see that our own cup is full, compassion moves us to share what we have with those who are thirsty.

Gratitude without compassion is like breathing in without breathing out. Gladness reaches beyond itself. That is why we say thanks so often in our daily lives. Gratitude overflows in smiles and prayers, and in our ritual acts of thanksgiving.

Fortitude and Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

Right now fortitude is needed more than fantasy.
Admit fears, shed tears, get back to work

Fresno Bee, October 6, 2017

It feels like the world is falling apart. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massacres clog the headlines.
Even El Capitan recently crumbled.

Of course, the rocks have always been falling. Each new hurricane and earthquake is a reminder of our fragile place on this spinning globe. Each new outburst of cruelty is a reminder of the human capacity for evil.

We cannot give up hope. But dark times need fortitude more than fantasy. Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world. This old-fashioned virtue has other names: grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage. Fortitude helps us face danger and endure stress. It gives us the energy and audacity to confront adversity.

Fortitude is solid and realistic, while hope is insubstantial and ethereal. The hopeful live in a world of “maybe.” Maybe after this hurricane season, we’ll take climate change seriously. Maybe after Vegas, we’ll take gun control seriously. Maybe next time, we’ll do things differently.

FORTITUDE IS GROUNDED IN A CLEAR-EYED ASSESSMENT OF THE WORLD.

It is possible that things will improve. But they won’t improve without hard work and common sense. Unrealistic hope is delusional. And hope without labor is merely hot air.

Reality is immune to our desires. Death and suffering are as pervasive as ignorance and selfishness. We need to accept the inevitable and focus on things that are actually in our control. We can regulate our efforts and subdue our fears. Beyond that lies fortune and fate.

Moderate fatalism is not a recipe for despair. Despair dwells in the negative and broods over misery. The risk of hope is that it gives way to despair when the hoped-for dream does not arrive.

The truth is that things are mixed. The earth is not static. Evil people exist. But so too do heroes, mothers and martyrs. Right now someone is dying; but someone else is being born. Someone is lonely; but someone else is falling in love. This vast world contains a multitude.

Reality includes hurricanes and earthquakes. It also includes tranquility, beauty and joy. We ought not let outrage and anxiety destroy our enjoyment of life’s bounty.

Our spirits will break if we try to take in all of the suffering of the world. This does not mean that we can ignore other people’s pain. But it does mean that compassion is a finite good. Help the victims if you can. But understand that grief and sorrow are local affairs.

Recent tragedies seem overwhelming. But there is always bad news somewhere. The media magnifies calamity. Catastrophes attract our attention.

It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off. If you want good news and inspiration, look for it. Common decency is the unexceptional background condition of normal life. Talk to a neighbor. Or call an old friend. Most people are doing OK most of the time.

The ancient Greeks taught that evil can be endured and that good is easily obtained. They advocated moderation and courage. The Christians added faith, hope and love. It is sometimes useful to “let go and let God.” But grit and determination remain important. Fortitude was celebrated by Aquinas and others in the Christian tradition.

IT IS WISE TO CONTROL YOUR CONSUMPTION OF NEWS. IF THE NEWS IS BOTHERING YOU, TURN IT OFF.

Fortitude requires vigilance and prudence. It is prudent to prepare for disaster. But vigilance is not fear. Courage depends upon a sense of proportion that prevents panic. With preparation, some ills can be avoided. And many evils can be endured with patient resolve.

A sense of proportion puts anxiety in its place. The world continues to hum along after each quake, storm, and massacre. This bigger picture provides a source of hope. It is true that this too shall pass.

The big picture also makes us humble and forgiving. El Capitan crumbles on occasion. So too does the strongest man. We are all vulnerable. Our common fragility is the source of solidarity.

Share your strength when you can. But be modest about compassion. No one is strong enough to shoulder all of the suffering of the world.

In the end it is our resilience that is the source of progress. It is what we do after a disaster that actualizes hope. Comfort the afflicted. Lick your wounds. Admit your fears. Wipe away your tears. And then get back to work.