A few weeks ago, I was fuming after reading one of Susan’s fantastic takedowns. I was yelling and swearing, sitting alone at my computer, and it felt good. My anger felt productive, like it was easing some of the helplessness I felt at the subject of Susan’s rant. I felt so certain I was on the good-guy side of the argument; I wore my righteous anger like a suit of armor.
Fast forward a few hours, I was unwinding after a day of P-Mag and Day Job with a few TED Talks. Before you think I fancy myself as high falutin’, you should know I normally only watch the funny talks and the ones about super germs. On this particular evening, however, I clicked through to a special series by and about topics pertaining to women. (You should mosey through when you’ve got some time; there are many fantastic talks in the group.) One in particular, “Compassion and the true meaning of empathy” by Roshi Joan Halifax, made me rethink how I’ve been looking at the world. Halifax works with people at the end of life, both through hospice and on death row, and the unconditional compassion she feels for her fellow humans (and other creatures) is palpable throughout her talk. (Need something lighter? My second favorite TED Talk of all time is J.J. Abrams talking about his mystery box.)
Halifax opens with this line:
Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise.
She goes on to state that compassion has three components. The ability to know the nature of suffering, the neurological response to act or aspire to transform suffering, and the ability not to concern oneself with outcomes. That last one was a real eye-opener for me. Compassion can’t be conditional. Halifax’s compassion is freely given – its strength isn’t determined by the person receiving it.
While my noodle was still twisting around Halifax’s definition of compassion, the following lines seriously fucked my shit up:
And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed.
Every political argument, every internet fight, every single-issue protester, every time I personally allowed myself to get over-emotionally involved in a debate – it all made so much sense. Why does it appear like anti-choice protesters have no empathy at all for the women they yell at? Because they can’t experience moral outrage and compassion at the same time. Why do I turn into a giant, capsy rage octopus when I’m mad? Because I can’t either.
So much of what we do, as feminists, as allies and as advocates, is built on a scaffold of moral outrage. Our righteous anger at the people who impede our progress feels good, but at the same time, it lacks compassion. This lead me to two questions.
- Is compassion necessary when dealing with those who disagree with us?
- Is moral outrage necessary for progress?
What do you think, readers? Is it possible to be outraged and compassionate at the same time?
Here’s the full talk by Halifax. If you go to the TED site, you can read a transcript or view the video with subtitles.