If we accept shame as the flawed belief that we are less than, compassion sees the full magnificence of who we are. When we are compassionate, we reflect someone’s whole humanity back at them if they are incapable of seeing it on their own. Imagine if we couldn’t ever see our reflection. How would we know if we were beautiful or not? How do we ever know how beautiful we are on the inside? Compassion is the antidote to shame. Through compassion, we can build a foundation for understanding and healing for individuals, and for society as a whole.
Shame is expressed in a multitude of ways both internally and externally, or, as in my case, both. If shame plays such a large role in the dysfunction of society, what is the cure? Compassion. Radical compassion. As humans, we are seemingly in a tug-of-war between our connection and oneness with everything and everyone—the spiritual, or heart-based connection—and our experience of being separate and disconnected from everything and everyone. It is not one or the other; rather, we are always experiencing both at the same time. Whether we like it, accept it, or even believe it, when we harm others, when we harm the collective, we also harm ourselves. When we are a perpetrator and victimize others, as I did, we also hurt ourselves in the process. We dehumanize ourselves as we dehumanize others. When we choose, instead, to harm ourselves, we place ourselves in both roles—perpetrator and victim—and if we can’t reconcile the two, the inner conflict can’t help but spill over and damage others.
There is a well-known saying that goes: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Thus, it’s crucial that we heal ourselves for the sake of others. Compassion for the self is crucial to the healing of the whole. The simple truth is that if we don’t heal our pain, we are our pain. And when we are our pain, it affects others—and not in a good way. As within, so without. As above, so below. The macrocosm mirrors the microcosm, and I can look out to the world to uncover buried truths deep within me. Healing the self is a social responsibility, and compassion and healing others is a great way to do that.
One of the hardest lessons I learned during this journey was to feel compassion for myself. This is such an important aspect of the healing process, but for the longest time, I felt I didn’t deserve compassion because of the horrific things I had said and done. Radical compassion goes inward as well as outward. I started to understand that the more I have compassion for myself, the more I diminish my capacity to do harm in the world. It’s not about whether I feel I deserve compassion, but that the rest of the world deserves to be around a person who is less angry and hurtful. Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with anger. Anger is a healthy human emotion, and like all healthy human emotions, it is transitory. Unhealthy emotions stick around until they are resolved; in its unhealthy form, anger becomes rage. There is a well-known saying that goes: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” One of the most important lessons Dõv taught me was that unresolved anger always expresses itself as violence, but that most of the time we do that violence to the self. Eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse, playing a sport where you break a bone every other month—these are ways that unresolved anger can manifest as violence to the self. I projected my unresolved anger outward: I listened to music that was angry, I chose a youth subculture that gave me permission to be violent, and I eventually adopted an ideology that provided an intellectual framework to justify that violence. For true healing and change to take place, both compassion for ourselves and for others must be present.
When we cling to our wounds and make an identity out of them, everyone around us suffers.
Here’s the analogy I like to use: Imagine that in the basement of every house in the neighbourhood there is a drum of toxic radioactive waste that poisons everyone within a one-mile radius. Through compassion I can help my neighbours remove those drums of toxic waste, but if I neglect the drum in my own basement because I don’t feel I deserve to remove it, am I not still poisoning my neighbours? That’s why we need to clean up our own houses, our own childhood wounds—not for our sake alone but also for those around us. When we cling to our wounds and make an identity out of them, everyone around us suffers. I learned that I had spent the greater part of fifteen years trying to change the world outside of me in order to soothe my inner wounds, to no avail. Taking to heart Gandhi’s words “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” I realized I could have far more success changing the world when I changed the world inside of me. By changing who you are in the world, you change the world. Through the practice of radical compassion, I found my way back to humanity. But I still had a lot more work to do, as I felt obliged to undo some of the harm that I’d done.