Why the World Needs You to Be Fiercely Compassionate

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Seeing compassion with its near & far enemies.

When we think of compassion, we think usually of a kind, nurturing personality. But are people who fight for injustice (social, political, personal) not compassionate?

Is compassion a virtue of the weak and not of the strong ones? I’ve often struggled with this question. And now I have the answer. Compassion can be expressed in rather unusual ways.

It might not appear as compassionate due to its force. But it still is compassion — fierce compassion.

The ‘Temple Tantrum’

Everyone who’s read about Jesus, or has watched a movie on his life, is well acquainted with the scene where Jesus turns the tables of money changers in the temple and the chairs of those selling doves.

What do you think Jesus would’ve said to those money changers? Think about it.

We tend to think of Jesus (and every saint) full of compassion and love. But he certainly did not say something like — “Oh you poor souls, why do you do this job? It’s not good for the temple. Please leave and save your souls.”

Far from it! He drove out the people doing business there and created absolute havoc by turning tables. That doesn’t seem very compassionate, right?

Uh-uh. Wrong. It does.

But his compassion was fierce. Yes, it was expressed rather angrily. But still, it wasn’t the usual emotional anger we’re used to seeing. The anger came not from hate but from love. And this distinction makes all the difference.

We’ve stereotyped compassion. It’s often associated with the yin or nurturing, aspect of compassion. The yin aspect is being with a person, comforting them, understanding their pain, and helping them in the best way possible.

But there’s another expression of compassion — the yang. The yang compassion is what Jesus portrayed. It’s what a firefighter exemplifies while saving a trapped child from a burning building. It’s the “taking action” side of compassion — to serve selflessly, stand for what’s right, and motivating others to do the same, even if it’s hard.

The yang aspect of compassion can certainly be fierce. “Fierce” indicates strength, courage, and empowerment. And yes, it may contain an element of anger. But source of the anger is on what the whole discussion stands on.

A good metaphor for fierce compassion is a mamma bear protecting her cub from threats. It’s selfless and pure. Conversely, it’s easy to believe that we’re fiercely compassionate, when in fact, we’re just angry, hateful, irritated, or revengeful.

Cursing someone who insulted a loved one, for instance, is not compassion, it’s revenge. Putting others down to “show them how things work” is not called justice. Even a mob destroying properties in their protest is not an act of compassion but merely suppressed anger.

The Buddhist Check to Be Fiercely Compassionate

Buddhists hold Four Immeasurables as crucial virtues to work on — loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Each of the four has “near” and “far” enemies. For instance near enemies of loving-kindness is sentimentality–similar but different. A far enemy of loving-kindness is ill will–the opposite of loving-kindness. Similarly, a near enemy of compassion is pity and a far enemy is cruelty.

Dr. Chris Germer applies the same concept of Near and Far enemies to fierce compassion. Being aware of these enemies helps us check whether our anger stems from emotional reactivity or from a state of true compassion.

Otherwise, we all can take hurtful actions in the name of compassion and guide others on the wrong path as well.

Far Enemies

Let’s first look at the far enemies of fierce compassion.

Emotional Reactivity (vs Mindfulness)

Mindfulness is the main pillar of fierce compassion. We need to not only be mindful of others’ suffering but also of our own emotions. Are we feeling negativity inside us? Or do we genuinely care about the situation?

Without being mindful, it’s easy to be hijacked by our emotions like anger, fear, and despair. Blinded by these emotions, we lose sight of the other person and the situation.

Mindfulness is crucial to respond and not react.

When anger comes from mindfulness, it’s not the same anger. Stephanie Van Hook (2015) quotes Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, Oct 1, 1931) as saying, “It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance; but I succeed almost on all occasions to keep my feelings under control.”

Gandhi was not controlled by his emotions. But he could cultivate the right emotion at the right time to accomplish his goal of liberating India.

Demonizing (vs Common Humanity)

Common humanity implies the recognition of everyone’s suffering and the wish to be happy. But when we feel moral superiority over others, we disconnect and demonize.

It all comes back to the eternal truth expressed by all religions — “We all are One.”

It’s so easy to become morally indignant and to demonize our opponents. In contrast, awareness of common humanity recognizes our differences while remembering that everyone is still a human being–“just like me.”

Coming from a place of empathy helps you keep your emotions control and your compassion just.

Hostility (vs Kindness)

There’s a fine line between being compassionate (to protect, provide or motivate others) and being hostile. At its root, hostility arises from fear. When you feel threatened, you use anger as a defense mechanism.

Dr. Germer says, “To discern whether our anger will be put to compassionate use, we can ask whether we are angry at injustice or feel hostile toward a person.” Compassion is impersonal and focuses on the problem. Hostility is personal and is geared toward a person or a group.

Near Enemies

Near enemies are subtle. They can often come disguised as mindfulness, common humanity, or kindness, but are not. Let’s see what they are to be aware of them.

Complacency (versus Mindfulness)

Mindfulness can easily be wrongly perceived as being emotionless like a cow standing in a field — no matter, rain or sun. When taken to the extremity of inaction, mindfulness becomes complacency.

In an effort to maintain awareness and even-mindedness, people may not take action when they see injustice. I too fall into this trap every now and then.

When people near me argue, I often retire in my room, not paying any attention to it. Perhaps what I could do better is to help them resolve the conflict. And that, my friend, requires strength which I too am working on.

But you see, the act of intervening to dismantle injustice and negativity is also compassion. Whereas, indifference in the name of compassion is not compassion at all.

Sameness (versus Common Humanity)

This one came as a shock to me as well (as I said, the near enemies are far deadlier than the far ones). “We all are one” is a fundamental truth, but it’s misleading to use that to invalidate others’ experiences.

Dr. Germer writes, “This is the assumption of sameness and is a near enemy of common humanity because it disregards and marginalizes the experiences of others. Fierce compassion includes the courage to have difficult conversations about our differences based on race, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and a multitude of other identities”

Pity (versus Kindness)

The difference between pity and kindness is where you’re looking from. Kindness implies considering a person as your equal whereas pity implies looking down on them.

In this way, we subtly devalue the person which can aggravate the situation.

How to Test Yourself

When you experience injustice, personal or social, ask yourself the following questions:

Far Enemies:

  • “Am I controlled by my anger?” (emotional reactivity)
  • “Do I feel morally superior?” (demonizing)
  • “Do I want my adversary to suffer?” (hostility)

Near Enemies:

  • “Am I willing to take necessary action?” (non-complacent)
  • “Am I curious about the experience of others?” (non-sameness)
  • “Am I willing to feel the pain of others as my own?” (non-pity)

If you responded “no” to the first three questions, and “yes” to the next three questions, you are probably in a state of fierce compassion.

The Need for Fierce Compassion

Developing compassion in a fundamentally incompassionate world feels hard. But anyone can be compassionate when others around them are compassionate. We especially have to be so strong in our compassion that we’re able to share it with others to transform their lives.

It’s time we become centered within and spread that feeling of centeredness to others. We don’t have to deny the world and leave it on fate to handle things.

Swami Vivekananda, upon once encountering a saint who wanted nothing to do with the world, and lived always behind a walled-up cave evading all visitors, made a telling comment:

“This saint perhaps is not perfected — too much of rites, vows, observances and too much of self-concealment. The ocean in its fullness cannot be contained within its shores, I am sure.”

Thus, at first, isolating yourself from negative influences can help us develop compassion. But to be perfect, we need to act with compassion even in the toughest moments.

In this sense, we need to be compassionate warriors, setting an example of love and joy in a world predominantly hateful.

Let’s all be warriors of compassion, love, and joy.

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Written on May 23, 2021