Why Compassion Is Necessary In a World That Stumbles Everyday

“The heart of compassion is really acceptance,” said vulnerability researcher and author, Brené Brown. “The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become.”

And yet, how difficult it is to accept ourselves when, by nature, we seek acceptance from others because of the way we’re wired. As Mathew Lieberman said in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

At what point in our lives do we lose compassion — the understanding that everyone is different, that it can’t be changed, and that it’s beautiful and necessary? Why do we lose that understanding, or rather, why is it so hard to embrace? As children, we accept others effortlessly, but once culture, media, influences from parents and environment come into play, we lose the ability to accept and instead we champion our ability to compartmentalize others to ultimately feel safe about who we are.

In Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, American author Bret Lott give his one piece wisdom to a younger generation on how compassion is a learned trait and why this is an essential skill all throughout life. It’s easy to travel through life believing that “This is just the way I am” — meaning, it’s harder for me to change my mind so I’m just going to continue acting this way because it’s easy and self-serving. Rarely do we consider how our attitude and behavior not only obstruct us from living but from connecting with people who unintentionally add meaning and enrichment into our existence. It can become intentional, I think, when we learn compassion.

Lott says [emphasis mine]:

“Words of advice have no choice but to be condescending. That is, the idea of advice connotes that the one giving it knows more about the way the world works than than the one receiving it, when we are all of us stumbling pretty much blind. My parents did, your parents did. I do, you do. My children will, your children will. So set it straight in your head right now: You will stumble.
All that’s left, then, is the perfect truth that we are all stumbling together, so the only word of ‘advice’ I guess I’d want to give, if you’ll forgive my posing as though I know what I’m talking about, is to learn compassion. Unlike clairvoyance or intuition or the ability to grow blond hair instead of brown, compassion is a learned trait, a behavior that incorporates others into our own consciousness: We are in this together. It’s not something passed down at conception, not instilled in us at secret ceremonies. You learn it.
[…]
Real compassion comes from living each day we have with the knowledge we are all of us lost, leaving us with the only real reaction we can have to all the ugliness the world has to dish out at us: Either we do for others what we would want done for ourselves, or we perish, never knowing what joy and fruition our feeble lives are capable of finding.”

To “incorporate others into our consciousness” is a conscious choice, which requires us to pause and reflect in moments where we readily react without thought. I think it’s harder to be compassionate because our brains are great at categorizing cues to help us make snap decisions, which ultimately make our lives easier. If all throughout our lives people with dark-rimmed glasses cut us off and do things we despise, of course when we meet a person of this description at a party or event we may not be compassionate. We tell ourselves, whether we’re aware of it or not, Why give this person a fighting chance when I’ve met people like them before! Easier to give them the cold shoulder and risk any chance of having your expectations being wrong.

Alas, how natural it is to think this way but how unhelpful it is to the manifestation of our character and life. Maybe that person wears those glasses because they’re insecure and want to fit in. Maybe they’ve been wearing those glasses their whole life, before it got popular (again). Maybe they don’t see it as hipster-style the way you do. Maybe they can’t afford another pair.

Challenging our perception requires critical thinking and pause; reaching a different conclusion where compassion can thrive is courage, which is a catalyst for connection. When we have a hard time accepting others for who they are—I understand, some people are truly unbearable—it should be used as an exercise of self-awarenesswhy, exactly, am I feeling this way towards this person? When engaging in this exercise myself, the conclusion is almost always the same: It’s my profound misunderstandings that causes these frustrations and cynicism. When I understand my misunderstandings and get to that place of acceptance, not in a sense of hugging everyone and exchanging phone numbers, but rather to simply observe and accept what’s before me without any negative expectations or attitudes, I can free my mind of the burdens that obstruct me from truly living well. Maybe hugs ensue.

The Difference Between Knowing and Understanding

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two,” said Maria Popova in her timeless essay on wisdom in the age of information. “We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

Example: We know that exercise is good for us, but we may not understand why. When we understand the benefits and range of factors—the science and the impact on our health, mind, and creativity—this growing understanding should compel us to act, whereas simply knowing does not.

If the sight of people staring at their phones or taking selfies makes you cynical and angry, it stems from a lack of an understanding on human nature and how technology feeds our primitive desires like connection and belonging. This lack of understanding creates frustration, and it’s difficult to be self-aware about the causes of our frustrations, so we sort the chaos into order by tweeting, Facebooking, hating, criticizing, and trolling.

To understand is to see an array of colors within a picture and to appreciate all of them. To understand is to feel the different fabrics and textures, and how each individual part not only supplements one another but is, in many ways, intertwined. In the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

However, this quest for understanding both others and ourselves must be a deliberate practice rooted in humility, open-mindedness, and patience — a dogged inquiry into the unknown but also a humbling realization that the unknown will always cast a larger shadow. In The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers his perspective on what it means to truly understand something:

“Penetration means to enter something, not just to stand outside of it. When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their sufferings, and enjoy their joy. The sutra uses the word “penetration” to mean “full comprehension.” The word “comprehend” is made up of the Latin roots com, which means “together in mind,” and prehendere, which means “to grasp it or pick it up.” So to comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something.”

Books are like maps to a person’s understanding; it’s a way for us embark on a tour into the unknown but with a help of a well versed tour guide. Take for example Debbie Millman’s fantastic book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. She explores the subject of brands by asking experts from a variety of fields: graphic designers, anthropologists, historians, scientists, authors, marketers, and more. Each perspective is a dot that is polished by experience and time, and the book is an attempt to string these dots together to form the jewel of understanding. The book wouldn’t be as powerful if it was only focused on graphic designers. Because Millman interviews people from diverse backgrounds with a range of expertise, it provides a holistic understanding of the subject. Let’s also remember that reading this one book doesn’t mean we completely understand the subject but rather we have started the process to understand. Because of the diversity of thinkers, we have more to ponder and work with.

Pursuing a life of understanding rather than trying to be right is enormously difficult because it requires consistent change not only of our views but our mind. Change is uncomfortable, and just because it’s consistent doesn’t mean it gets easier. A life of seeking to understand requires us to learn how to pause when we feel anger or entitlement or fear, to remember to take a step back and absorb the details that were missed.

As Maria Popova mediated in her 7 lessons learned in 7 years of her art [emphasis mine]:

“We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

For a long time I couldn’t understand why a group of my friends enjoyed going out every Friday and Saturday, buying new outfits and spending needlessly, all in vein of attracting vain people. What’s worse, they failed every weekend, talked about their failures during the weekday, swore to never go out again, but would fall prey by Friday noon. It boggled my mind because how could one not be self-aware about it? How do you remain unaware of your desires and actions leading to repeated failures?

I resented it. But what a profound misunderstanding on my part, and how self-serving it was for me to feel that way. By understanding their personality (and mine), their background (some friends grew up with Happy Hour ingrained into their lives), their worldview and aspirations and mindset, it started to make sense why they did what they did. I didn’t agree with it still, but I no longer had feelings of resentment or, from what I had to really uncover, an accelerated sense of maturity that was somehow superior. When all these dots connected, I realized that an understanding allows acceptance to arise.

It’s easy to be angry with a racist prick. But when you truly understand that person — their upbringing, worldview, personality, family history, where they were raised, the nature of stereotypes, and so many more factors that pushes a person to think and act that way — yes, we pity or even sometimes berate them, but ultimately we need to understand so we can accept who they are. The difficulty is wanting to understand and accept them, because it’s so much easier to resent them, to place them in a container that’s labeled “Broken” and move on.

Life will be way easier by doing the latter, but a part of me believes that a life of understanding, regardless of the stress it produces, is worth living. The way squats and deadlifts tones your legs, exercising an understanding hones and enriches the mind.

If I understand a person or event, this understanding should inspire me to live more positively than negatively, maybe push me to contribute in a meaningful way. The goal is to get out of that place of frustration, baseless opinions, gossip, and to combine knowledge and ideas that helps us lead better lives.

When I think about this topic and need to find my center, I can’t help but return to Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom in Meditations. He said:

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.”

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

“That it’s not what they do that bothers us: that’s a problem for their minds, not ours. It’s our own misperceptions. Discard them. Be willing to give up your thinking of this as a catastrophe … and your anger is gone. How do you do that? By recognizing that you’ve suffered no disgrace. Unless disgrace is the only thing that can hurt you, you’re doomed to commit innumerable offenses—to become a thief, or heaven only knows what else.”

“Your life will change when you change your mind,” I meditated to myself when I created the Motivated Mastery manifesto. How do we change our mind? By seeking to understand rather than trying to be right; to remain curious as to why we’re here, but more importantly, how we can use our allotted time wisely; to find the knowledge that helps us become better humans; to humbled by the beauty that escapes us; to be self-aware. We mistakenly believe that life is short, until someone like Seneca comes along and pops our bubble by saying, “life is long if you know how to use it.” Knowing how comes from an understanding, an appreciation, and a willingness to find your center in the midst of discomfort.

While we may never truly understand ourselves, other people, the world or the universe, doesn’t that stir a visceral gut feeling to want to find out?

Advice to a Younger Generation On Taking Dead-End Jobs

From the cartoonist, @gapingvoid aka Hugh MacLeod

Dead-end jobs often provide a fresh reality: a realization for the kind of work you don’t ever want to do. Mine started with sales job at a clothing store in a shopping mall. I knew it was a dead-end job because I shopped there often, and the staff changed every season like their inventory. These dead-end jobs are not intrinsically bad, but rather we make them so. Perhaps the duties don’t resonate, or we feel entitled to higher responsibilities that speak to our passions and skills. Alas, the mindset of the young.

On June 23, 1885, Andrew Carnegie delivered a speech to the students of the Curry Commercial College in Pittsburg. He opened with [emphasis mine]:

“It is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburg had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately miss that salutary branch of a business education. But if by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning the boy who has the genius of the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.”

While being young and in a dead-end job, it’s difficult to understand the opportunity that you’re in to develop some necessary skills, both for life and for your career; it is only in hindsight that you realize how much your of past experiences, whether good or ill, molded you. For one, it’s about learning patience and paying your dues. If you don’t have the patience to sweep, what makes you believe that you’ll have the patience for more arduous, emotional tasks like selling or pitching ideas or working under harsh deadlines? While you may be skilled and smart, most people will see you as young—and that’s it.

In Take My Advice: Letters To The Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, a collection of letters from people you’ve probably never heard of, American novelist Florence Virginia King offers sound advice for dead-end jobs.

She said [emphasis mine]:

“Get a dead-end-job—they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little trumps are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: ‘You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.’”

It takes a serious level of self-awareness and humility—words that are rarely associated with the younger generation, much less our culture at large—to know that a job is a dead-end, but to perform the duties with enthusiasm and a lens for learning.

What lens is this, exactly? Ryan Holiday, in his must-read book, The Obstacle Is The Way, talks about the things that that we readily avoid in our lives and careers, but essentially why these roadblocks are opportunities in disguises:

“Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. … But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.

Foolishness.

Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought. Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.”

Sometimes we justify dead-end jobs as a way to climb up a ladder. While this is true to an extent, it’s an unhelpful attitude that won’t last. Business writer Tom Peters wrote a poignant essay titled The Brand Called You in 1997 which continues to stand the test of time in its timeliness and practicality.

He admonished [emphasis mine]:

“Instead of making yourself a slave to the concept of a career ladder, reinvent yourself on a semiregular basis. Start by writing your own mission statement, to guide you as CEO of Me Inc. What turns you on? Learning something new? Gaining recognition for your skills as a technical wizard? Shepherding new ideas from concept to market? What’s your personal definition of success? Money? Power? Fame? Or doing what you love? However you answer these questions, search relentlessly for job or project opportunities that fit your mission statement. And review that mission statement every six months to make sure you still believe what you wrote.

No matter what you’re doing today, there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted “imagineer.” Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.

It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.”
Pair this Robert Greene’s advice on the mindset of an apprentice, why rewards are toxic to our careers, and my most popular post in 2014, advice to the young and ambitious 20somethings who think they should be successful by now.

 

Seneca’s Letter to His Mother on Turning to Liberal Studies to Overcome Grief

What greater pain is there than seeing one’s own mother in distress? This is exactly what compelled Seneca—Roman philosopher, statesman, and a man of letters—to console and write a letter to his mother, Helvius, on his recent exile for allegedly having an affair with Julia Livilla, sister of Emperor Caligula. For the next 8 years he spent his life on an island just outside of France called Corsica. In exile, Seneca lost his father, his son, and his wife. The only solace in this prison of loneliness and despair was to write poems and letters to friends and family. It is in these letters that we see not a man who surrendered due to his treacherous circumstances, but a man who summoned the principles of Stoicism to safeguard and facilitate the tranquility of his mind.

While his letters are for consolation, they read like essays that focus not on the advice we want to hear but what we need to hear. He was the one in exile, and yet he was the one comforting someone outside of it. It is in these letters that he offers his understanding of human nature, adversity, and our unquestionable power to overcome it with the aid of liberal studies, particularly, philosophy.

Seneca opens with:

“Dearest mother, I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them from coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself. Moreover, I was afraid that though Fortune was conquered by me she might conquer someone close to me. So, staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds. There were, on the other hand, considerations which delayed my purpose. I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.

[…]

Anyway, I’ll try my best, not trusting in my cleverness, but because being myself the comforter I can thereby be the most effective comfort. As you never refused me anything I hope you will not refuse me this at least (though all grief is stubborn), to be willing that I should set a limit to your desolation.”

What follows is Seneca supporting his mother’s grief to “expose and reopening all the wounds which have already healed.” Why would he endeavor to make his mother relive horrible memories? His methodology seems unorthodox, but he believed that by returning to the place of grief—this time with a proper mindset and guidance—one can face their adversity for what it is and use it as a catalyst for personal transformation. As Seneca says:

“Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.”

Seneca continues this letter by reflecting on his mother’s trials and tribulations—losing her mother at childbirth, losing her uncle, and a month later, her husband. After the passing of her husband, she had to bury 3 grandchildren; twenty days later she buried Seneca’s son, who died in her arms, and to hit the nail just one more time, Seneca was sentenced to exile.

He acknowledges these misfortunes with empathy and purpose. First, after pointing out all her scars, he reminds her of the good in her life—growing up with the care of a stepmother, actually having grandchildren and a loving husband. He boldly states that the deepest scar is the most recent one, which is why he’s compelled to communicate like this. Like any son would, he tells his mother:

“Do I seem to have dealt boldly with you? I have kept away not one of your misfortunes from you, but piled them all up in front of you. I have done this courageously for I decided to conquer your grief, not cheat it. But I  shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.

First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.

And with a breathe, Seneca speaks with an undertone of Stoicism that has the ever vibrant ring of not just a positive outlook but a thorough understanding of our nature:

“We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself. So what? Am I calling myself a sage? Certainly not. For if I could claim that, not only would I be denying that I was wretched but I would be asserting that I was the more fortunate of all men and coming close to god. As it is, doing what is sufficient to alleviate all wretchedness, I have surrendered myself to wise men, and as I am not yet strong enough to help myself I have gone over to another camp—I mean those who can easily protect themselves and their followers.”

This isn’t a literal journey of him moving to a different camp. When Seneca says he surrenders to wise men, he’s using the wisdom of his heroes and past thinkers to aid him in troubling times. As Henry David Thoreau once famously said,“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Seneca continues:

“They have ordered me to take a firm stand, like a sentry on guard, and to foresee all the attacks and all the onslaughts of Fortune long before they hit me. She falls heavily on those whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessing which she kindly bestowed on me—money, public office, influence—I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was deceived by her favours.

[…]

Certainly the word ‘exile’ itself now enters the ears more harshly through a sort of conviction and popular belief, and strikes the listener as something gloomy and detestable. For that is the people’s verdict, but wise men on the whole reject the people’s decrees.”

Boom.

After a series of stories, explanations, and other examples of exile and misfortune, Seneca gives some of the most sound advice applicable to anyone, especially nowadays when it’s incredibly easy to perceive little threats as life-threatening dangers. He says with such perfect timing after pages of reflection and digestion:

“Therefore it is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey aboard, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it. And so I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition, and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defense against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.

But until you arrive at this haven which philosophy holds out to you, you must have supports to lean on: so I want meanwhile to point out your own consolations.”

Not just for Helvius but also for ourselves, one of the greatest consolations, especially in my own life, was the study and adoption of philosophy. While my adversities didn’t compare to exile but certainly felt like it, they were adversities nonetheless, and I had to learn to overcome them; Stoicism provided a lens that allowed more light to come in.

Seneca ends this letter, again, with a Boom:

“However, whatever you do, inevitably your thoughts will turn to me constantly, and none of your other children will come to mind more often, not because they are less dear to you but because it is natural to touch more often the part that hurts. So this is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupations, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth—this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling snow, rain, and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.”

This letter infused with wisdom and love—Consolation to Helvia, originally known as De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem—was found in On The Shortness Of Life. Pair this with Seneca on philosophy and busyness.