Who do you think of when you read the words ‘broken people’? Do your thoughts ever include yourself? Do you feel empathy, sympathy, compassion, disgust, aversion? I would like to discuss the unique variants of brokenness, and how we as people and society as a whole react.
Did you think of addicts, homeless people, maybe those with some definitions of mental instability as broken people? I did. And my emotional reactions were all across the spectrum, some I’m not at all proud of feeling! I even went to the dictionary and looked up definitions for words like addict, empathy, sympathy, compassion… I realized I don’t live in a dictionary and every definition fit someplace within my perceptions, but not others. So I would like to know what you think, I would like to turn this issue over in my mind, take it out to examine it and see if I can grow in understanding.
Addict. It’s one of the thoughts that came into my mind when I wondered about ‘broken people.’ Is this person addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or maybe coffee? Should it make a difference? If I am approached on the street by a homeless woman asking if I can help, how do I react? Do I automatically start putting restrictions on what help I might offer, or my ability to be compassionate? Do I wonder if this homeless person is an addict, if giving money will help her continue her addiction? And haven’t I already decided what the word ‘addict’ means to me!? Yes, and it had nothing to do with coffee. I feel differently depending on what choices another person has made, I react differently. I want to learn how to not do that!
Maybe I need to examine how I define the word compassion. After much thought I’ve decided compassion is accepting each person for who they are. This is totally different than empathy which is responding to a person’s emotions and opinions with similar emotions and opinions. It’s also totally different than sympathy which means feeling sorry or regretful for another’s suffering.
If I am acting out of compassion I won’t sit in judgment of this homeless woman, but will accept her for who she is. Whether she spends money I might give her on McDonald’s, drugs, or the medical bills that may be the reason she is homeless, doesn’t really matter. Is it not her right as a human being to make her own choices? For sure I won’t be accountable for her choices, but she will be. I don’t get to decide what is a poor choice or what would be a better choice for her — not if I accept her for who she is, accept the fact that she has the right to her own choices, and agree to honor that right for everyone.
I think the person I want to be would be compassionate to all who suffer, and try to cultivate a loving attitude to everyone else—even those who don’t. I am not the person I want to be!
How do I cultivate compassion for privileged people who remain oblivious to the consequences their self-centeredness visits upon others? How on earth do I offer compassion to someone who regards him/herself as superior and who feels no discomfort on account of being oblivious? I’m personally going to have the hardest time with those unable to recognize happenstance may be the only difference between them and anyone else, particularly someone less fortunate.
Aren’t we all “broken” to some degree or other (certainly, myself!) And I need to try harder to interact with others with compassion for their unique variant of brokenness. I have found that many people’s “addiction” is to a state of denial that they are broken at all. This addiction is no less vicious than alcoholism or drug addiction, and, like those addictions, is rarely willingly abandoned.
If you stopped everyone you met in the course of a single day and asked them to tell you about their most pressing worry, you’d find yourself astounded not just by the sheer intensity of the suffering people live with silently every day but by their ability to live in spite of it. In this sense, we’re all like alcoholics / drug abusers (not to minimize the incredible and unique difficulty of overcoming a literal addiction to substances) —all struggling with problems we don’t routinely broadcast to the world. My problems may not be yours, but no one’s problems make them something more or less than anyone else.
I believe that until you have compassion for yourself the credibility of your compassion for others must remain in doubt. I personally have made the excruciating decision to cut someone out of my life because I was ill-equipped to help them, and I had to make the difficult decision to say goodbye so I could concentrate on my own issues, it was a compassionate act — towards myself. There are some people who damage the lives of those they are entwined with. How do we decide who that is?
Most people we encounter in the course of our day seem on the surface to be living relatively calm, functional—even happy—lives. And some certainly are. But some are not. Not that people intentionally work to create such a facade. Rather, most people simply work to carry out their responsibilities as best they can. I struggle when I get mad at someone and feel the urge to slander them or look down on them, the way people still do alcoholics and drug addicts, or for that matter anyone who struggles with problems they’re not struggling with themselves. At those times I try to remind myself that everyone has a point of view, that everyone has dreams they carry in their heart and situations they fear yet struggle against.
I believe our society privileges certain types of brokenness — extreme competitiveness, greed, to name a couple — and casts stones at others, without regard for underlying spiritual health. We rarely look beyond what appears to be success to see the hidden struggles, and if we do, we accept those people who appear successful more easily and are less likely to think of that person’s variant of brokenness.
If we are to truly be compassionate can we treat any person differently than another?
If we were to really learn the lessons of being compassionate, who’s to say we can’t help humanity in conducting a revolution of character that might change the destiny of another, a community, a nation, humankind? At the very least we will have created a gentle space for spirit to flow and grow.