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The Art of Compassion: Beautifully Balanced Tension

Compassion requires something of us: Self-sacrifice.

Self-sacrifice can be as simple as a choice to serve someone else with a few kind words. There are opportunities set before us every day to give up some small comfort in an effort to express care for others. When was the last time you willingly cleaned up after someone else without getting rewarded for your efforts?

A danger presents itself along this line of reasoning however. Self-sacrifice too quickly creates opportunity to make excuses for abuse when not held in balance with self-care. Compassion does not mean we make provision for toxic people to continue negatively impacting our lives or ignore the exploitation of others that occurs under corrupt or false authority. True compassion requires humility. You cannot sacrifice the self perpetually without self-care. Self-sacrifice should not be understood as self-flagellation. It need not be so tawdry. Compassion seeks self-sacrifice from a full heart. We can only give from abundance, because without self-care we have nothing to offer others. The self exists in tension with the other, and compassion seeks a balance between the two. Without a strong sense of self, we may struggle to find balance; repeating patterns of over-correction and redefinition of our identity based on the emotional responses of others.

Imagine if you will a line up of 7 or 8 individuals from different walks of life. Create an image of each of these individuals in your mind. Make sure the crowd is diverse; ranging in age from 5 to 95 years old, including gender variation, different ethnicities, different levels of fitness, different heights and/or different disabilities. One might be an Olympic athlete while another might be someone’s great-grandmother.

Take a moment here to identify each of these individuals.

Now start with the strongest individual, imagine you both have a rope between you, it’s a game of tug of war… now pull. How hard do you imagine you have to pull on that rope? Do you think you’re strong enough to win that game of tug of war? Now swap out the strongest with the weakest. I want you to pull on that rope with the same strength as before, what do you imagine would happen?

Depending on your own strength, and the diversity of your imagined line up; there’s a strong possibility of drastically different results when you pull on that rope between the two imagined games of tug and war.

That rope can easily represent the tension that exists between people. There is a push and pull that we participate in with all our relationships (real or imagined). Some individuals will pull as hard as possible in every relationship, seeking to win as often as possible. Others won’t try to win at all; in fact, they will give in and lose as often as possible. Compassion on the other hand seeks balance, pull only as hard as the individual on the other end of that line. If you don’t pull, then you lose. If you pull too hard you may knock the person on the other end of the line face down on the floor. Congratulations, you won, but at what cost? The balance compassion seeks looks to keep the game going. Compassion does not want to win or lose, only to play the game; Maintaining tension in balance.

How well do you know yourself? How much do you seek to gain from others? How much do you seek to give away? When we seek to define ourselves based on how hard someone is pulling on that rope then we find ourselves battered about, and likely end up knocking others over along the way. Compassion is not blind to the reality that not every relationship will be healthy; you may not be strong enough to engage with people that would seek to take advantage of you. Compassion allows you to disengage from abusive relationships wherever the other party is unwilling to scale back how much they seek to take from you. If you only stand to lose, better not to play the game.

In turn compassion compels us to give back as much as we take. Everything you have was taken from somewhere. We all entered the world with nothing, completely dependent on the compassion of others to survive. Along the way we stumble and fall, we are wounded by others stronger than ourselves, we are broken and learn pain. Still, compassion requires self-sacrifice.

When engaging with individuals who are not as rationally, logically, or emotionally strong as we are, we must be careful not to pull too hard, we must sacrifice our strength, and instead lend it to them. By lending our strength in this way we empower each other to engage more effectively with others, thereby strengthening the network of relationships that connect us all. And so, we require a strong sense of self. We must understand what fuels our hearts. We must learn how to define ourselves by our love of others (not their love of us) if we are to choose to make compassion a driving force in our lives. In other words, we should seek to define who we are by what energy we put out into the world, rather than how the world chooses to respond. Compassion looks to recognize our equality, not justify our abuse. Compassion identifies us as an equal member of humanity and empowers us to offer healing in response to the struggles of others.