“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-awareness — why, 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.