Each morning my spirits fall as I scroll through the news articles on my FB feed: travel restrictions on Muslims from abroad, a scarily unqualified set of cabinet members, an oil spill in the Dakotas, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
I feel distanced from all that’s happening in my country. I feel powerless. I feel cold.
Of course, one silver lining of this awful administration is that we’ve seen a surge in protest and political involvement. People refuse to sit idly by as our nation and its values disintegrate around them. I teared up scanning images from the Women’s March on Washington, reading poetry from friends, and watching videos of the recent protests at airports around the nation. Some paint this uproar and reaction as pointless time-wasting from a group of petulant babies, and others say it’s a sign of the power of the people. Both narratives force dynamic action into static black-and-white paper cuttings, beautiful but flawed.
All of this political turmoil has me thinking a lot about compassion.
This past October 2016, I had the privilege to chaperone one of Woodstock’s Activity Week trips to Dharamshala, a small city in Northern India. Though the bus ride was 14 hours of pure hell and my anxiety at shepherding seniors around was distracting, the trip afforded us some amazing opportunities.
One such opportunity was meeting His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and then hearing him address a group of Chinese pilgrims – all of whom had to conceal their real reason for being in India due to the tenuous relationship between Tibet and China.
This wasn’t my first time seeing HHDL speak; he had addressed the Woodstock community several years ago. But I was again reminded of what an amazing person and leader he is. HHDL has a certain irrepressible spark and spirit. He glows with joy and love, even when he speaks of the terrible ills in this world.
As many know, one of HHDL’s main messages is to show compassion to all those around us. When we visited HHDL’s temple in Dharamshala, I spent some time meditating on this idea a bit:
“He says we must live with compassion – not just claim it as a belief, but actually make it true within our hearts. He asks a lot of us.
It is easy indeed to think we are compassionate people. But consider who it is we show our (often inconsistent) compassion to: our family, our friends, our pets, our colleagues, those who share our belief systems. How much harder it is to show compassion to those beyond the small circles ringing our own private worlds…”
I had scrawled these notes in a small notebook amid the clamor of other visitors and pilgrims, in a completely different headspace than the one I occupy now. But my reflection seems to me linked to a major problem in America these days: we’ve lost sight of compassion.
The root of the word compassion, from compati, is “to suffer with” (Oxford English Dictionary). It would be easy for me to demonize Trump and his supporters by arguing that they don’t “suffer with” or have sympathy for those in need. Indeed, some scholars, like George Lakoff, have divided the left and the right into two camps: liberals who follow the nurturing parent model and conservatives who follow the strict father model (Lakoff). Liberals, then, might seem more compassionate than conservatives, more willing to support high taxes and government welfare programs, to welcome refugees, to protect freedoms for all people.
But this oversimplifies and skews the narrative, and my summary of Lakoff’s research is another example of that. Lakoff found that conservatives do feel they are showing compassion through a “tough love” approach that they hope will allow citizens to build independence from the government. Nothing is as simple as it seems.**
We all must learn to feel the sufferings of one another, which are varied and complicated but always there. As many political pundits have noted, Trump’s base is full of people suffering from job / wage stagnation and a melting-away of the values they hold dear.
I unfortunately don’t have any real suggestions to solve the divisive politics in America, and at this point my frustration with the Trump administration makes me want to fight its every decision tooth and nail. However, it would be wise for us to remember HHDL’s challenge and remain sensitive to the unique sufferings of those around us. We’re all human, after all.
PS -- If you'd like to see more photos from our trip, check out FB.
“Compassion.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University, 2017. En.oxforddictionaries.com, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/compassion. Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.
Lakoff, George. “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in the Dust.” Social Research, vol. 62, no. 2, 1995. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017. **Thanks to my poli sci-trained husband for his help with Lakoff’s work!**