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Nothing but kind: Compassion opens up alternatives to violence

“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind,” Anne Lamott wrote in “Why I Don’t Meditate,” paraphrasing a “subversive” aphorism of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. It’s a funny statement, because it goes without saying that there are unkind ways to respond to frustrations, deprivations, and injustices. Knee-jerk responses are often driven by rage and fear. They are the easy responses. It’s the compassionate response that usually takes creative visualization. Once the compassionate way is clear, however, it often presents itself as the best choice.

Why is destructive, unkind behavior less desirable? For one reason, it often comes from a specific kind of ignorance. “Violence” – to oneself or to others – “is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering,” Parker J. Palmer said of the message behind his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy.” If you can only think in terms of injury, if competitive survival is your goal and if pain is your currency, you cannot see a vast array of alternatives. This explains why a character in Dennis Lehane’s novel “Live By Night” preached: “What I’ve learned is that violence procreates. And the children your violence produces will return to you as savage, mindless things.” The words “savage” and “mindless” conjure up images of an unthinking brutality. Compassionate behavior is preferable because it draws from the mind as well as the heart.

Where it fails to draw from conscious reason, violence may be dredged up from a personal or collective unconscious. The self-improvement promoter Anthony Robbins pointed to the example of a child who picks up a machine gun, as depicted in the war film “The Killing Fields.” “The kind of behavior people produce is the result of the state they are in,” Robbins wrote in “Unlimited Power.” “How they specifically respond out of that state is based on their models of the world – that is, their stored neurological strategies.” To put it more colloquially, people often commit acts of violence on “auto-pilot” because of a personal habit or a violent environment. Compassion can be learned and practiced so that it overrides the previously acquired violent mindset. It can prevent people from resorting to violence.

Sometimes people forcefully pour themselves into an endeavor that is hurting them. It is a Concorde fallacy: the irrational prejudice against scrapping a doomed mission simply because of the cost already incurred. This occurs for both psychic and material costs. One might have been lured by the promise of Russian Communism long after it became a “discredited ideology,” said Clive James in “Cultural Amnesia,” due to a “reluctance to accept that so much suffering could be wasted.”

So, too, it is sometimes argued that revenge has its place in civilization. An injury is a wasted suffering unless it is an injury avenged, according to some viewpoints. Some believe that violence can be a justified response to repay an injury. Even if there are limited situations where violence is necessary, it does not, however, imply that the violent acts should be celebrated. If someone must be killed in war, one might “mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death,” said Pamela Gerloff, and “feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play a role in killing another.” For is war itself not, as the theologian Nicolas Berdyaev put it, a “zoological stage in the development of mankind”? James Gilligan, questioning the concept of war heroism, asked: “Is violence, as a personal, social, and political strategy, compatible with human survival at this stage in our evolutionary development?”

There is the dilemma: violence might be necessary on rare occasions, but as a permanent strategy, it does not support human flourishing. The world already has a surplus of violence, anyway. What the world thirsts for are more compassionate approaches, lived out with great thought and utmost care. Conflicts do not end themselves through ever-greater paroxysms of violence, as rage, cruelty, hatred and trauma only beget more of each other; rather, conflicts end when people begin to relate to each other in more compassionate ways. When people think about suffering with a compassionate mind, they see that they really cannot be anything but kind.