“An enemy is a person whose story you do not know.” ~Irene Butter
We all know the status of our currently hostile nation—it feels as though you can’t make it through a single speech or read an article or engage in a conversation with friends that doesn’t somehow touch on polarizing topics or divisive politics. The focus is on our differences instead of our shared humanity.
It’s all too easy to blame other people, other groups, and other political parties for the endless strife in our world—civil wars, famines, natural disasters, school shootings, homelessness, environmental destruction—just as it’s easy to blame others who play some role in our personal narratives of failed relationships, unsatisfying work, and family strain.
Suffice it to say, compassion is all but gone and the golden rule that we were taught so innocently as children feels as though it died along with our childhoods.
I could readily spin this into some narrative about that person, that group, or that organization causing the “problem.” But I’m going to let you in on the secret to this post ahead of time… spoiler alert, they aren’t the problem, I am. Whoever or whatever I find myself blaming aren’t the real sources of the problem, I AM… and so are you.
I hope by the end of this, a small part of what I am saying resonates with you as a means for a cure rather than another recipe for guilt and shame.
I wish I could tell you that radical compassion has come easy to me. I wish I could tell you that I have it all figured out, that I’m enlightened, that I’m making cookies for every stranger I meet, passing out hugs like coupons to a new restaurant. I wish I could give you a secret formula for perfect peace and joy in your life so you can be consumed with radical compassion yourself.
But in all honesty, the formula doesn’t exist, and I wouldn’t trust anyone (including myself) who ever tried to feed me one. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t very real, very tangible things we can do to get closer to a life of joy amidst all of the chaos living throws our way.
I don’t believe that pure joy and bliss are endpoints—things to “achieve” or “accomplish.” Instead, I think of joy and peace as continuums you can actually work to improve upon, allowing you to find more balance in your life—as opposed to the stress, anxiety, anger, frustration and resentment that consumes so much of our days.
The storms of life will never stop coming our way. We can’t stop them or even lessen their blows. But we do have power to control our reactions and to change how we weather the storms. Therein lies the path to peace.
Let me rewind things back a bit for reference. I came from a troubled childhood; I had a twisted relationship with my religion and, by the time I made it to college, I was destined to prove wrong the world, my childhood, and my God. I was going to save the world. I earnestly believed that nobody else in mainstream culture seemed to care, so it was up to me.
By graduation I was living on four to five hours of sleep per night, working seven days a week, and surviving on a liquid diet of coffee, coffee, and another cup of coffee. I was so productive and effective that I actually thought it might be possible for me to save the world.
By twenty-three I was worth seven figures and was running my own save-the-world social enterprises. I had a non-profit, a kid on the way, and I was consulting for some of the largest companies in the Midwest—all while driving a two-door, uncomfortably bright-yellow Ford Focus.
Within a year I was physically sick (another spoiler alert—I survived to write this to you) and completely broke. All of my businesses were shut down, including my non-profit. My family was split.
What was the worst part of this for the success-obsessed twenty-four-year-old with a hero complex? Realizing that when my world came to a crashing halt, the rest of the world moved on without me.
Now what does this all have to do with radical compassion? For me it took losing everything to see that I needed to change. It was only in the humility of losing it all that I was able to wrestle with a very hard truth of social justice work: It is physically impossible to sustain long-term external compassion without a stronger, more stable, foundational internal compassion. In my journey to save everyone else, I did so at the expense of my own life.
And here’s the now-obvious downfall in that: You cannot love another person more than you love yourself. It is impossible and if you try to do so, you will ultimately fail. Without caring for and loving myself, I eventually become a greater burden to those I was trying to help in the first place.
What does this have to do with our world now? Like the twenty-three-year-old self-proclaimed savior of the world, we have become a selfish, self-idolizing culture that thinks we have all the answers and the others don’t. We think we are the only ones who care about the world.
What we are missing in our current polarized culture is a shared humanity. That person that you are yelling at who has a different political, social, religious, fill-in-the-blank opinion than you, well they are human too, and you are no better than them.
When you can unveil your own hidden depths and come to admit that you are not perfect, that you make countless mistakes, all the time, that you constantly change and evolve your opinions and beliefs… then you will begin to open up to having more compassion for yourself.
And when you can begin to see yourself as a human being that is loved and worthy of grace and compassion—even though you are not perfect and not living up to your own ideals—you can begin to see that the person “opposing” you with the same grace and compassion you have for yourself, no matter how different she is or how many mistakes he has made.
Why? Because you can believe that maybe, just for a moment, they are a person, just like you, doing the best they can with what they believe to be true.
My friend Irene Butter, who survived the holocaust concentration camps, perfectly summarizes this entire concept in a single sentence: “An enemy is a person whose story you do not know.” Daryl Davis, The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai—all people who live out their lives through radical compassion share this conviction.
Friends, we need to seek wisdom from the people who have come before us—people like Irene who have suffered through the worst of human history. We need to listen to how they came out on the other side of those horrors somehow loving their enemies, filled with an unspeakable compassion that no hate can touch, and with a reverence for a burning activism of change that no amount of water can put out.
If ultimately, we care about changing this world, if we believe in ideas like radical compassion, it’s time we stop looking elsewhere and start looking within. It’s time that we become the radical compassion this world so desperately needs. This is just the first step, but my friend, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your story is, that first step starts with you.
Join me and may we be radical enough to take that first step, together.
This article was originally published on Tiny Buddha.
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