Monday, January 9, 2012

Monday Meditation: Definitions and Implications

Compassion comes from the Latin roots for "suffers" and "with". In today's language, it means a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is suffering in some way, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.

Tolerance comes from the Latin "to bear", and has come to imply a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race or other identifiers differ from one's own. The dictionary also added this phrase: "Freedom from bigotry", which rather fortuitously aids my point in writing about it. I'll come back to that.

Bigotry is defined as the stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own. The term comes from French bigot, and was originally a derogatory term applied to the Normans (who, to the French, were a notably stubborn people in their refusal to espouse the behaviors and attitudes of les fran├žais).

Finally, freedom is used in the definition of tolerance and so it should be included here. Among its several definitions, the word freedom illustrates the power to determine action without restraint.

In reviewing these words and their definitions, let us consider some implications:

Compassion, if we are to practice it, implies that we all -- together and equivalently with others -- experience suffering. We are not separate from or unaffected by suffering, but instead must contend with it in much the same way as everyone else. In other words, all of us are stuck in the same quicksand.

Bigotry, based on its origins as a word, affords us an interesting look back into a history when at least one group of people thought another less than they because of their beliefs. I find it no end of ironic that this word would come from French, whose culture has been vilified by ours for its own views, but my point is that at least part of the quicksand in which we are all mired has its origins in this state of mind. Simply put, we cannot get to the place of being effective at ending suffering (as the second half of the definition of compassion suggests is our desire) if we adhere stubbornly to the belief that others' beliefs are less than ours.

The definition of freedom above supports the statement that, at least as it relates to belief and action toward others, we have the power to choose. The statement in the dictionary, "Freedom from bigotry", can appropriately be interpreted to say that we can choose to cultivate an attitude of acceptance of difference, and that it doesn't matter what kind of difference. The French thought the Normans were stubborn. We Americans think the French are stubborn. The rest of the world thinks Americans are stubborn. The particular flavor of stubborn doesn't really matter. What matters is the view that someone else's flavor is less than our own.

Let's bring this back to compassion and being stuck in the same quicksand. If we accept bigotry to be a negative term and, thus, the behavior it references to be negative, and if we accept that bigotry is something we all wrestle with, and if we accept that we have the freedom to choose different behavior then it seems as though the most effective way to practice compassion would be to do the following:

  • To work to discover that my own views probably come from the same place as everyone else's (that is, they are an amalgam of my experience, my understanding and the particular flavor of the world around me).

  • To free myself from the thought that my own views are better that everyone else's and that everyone else's views are less than my own.

  • To work to relate to others' and their views from a place of sameness, not separateness (I'm in this world with everybody else, not just by myself).

Do you think you would be able to see more clearly the wholeness of people by doing these things? What about the idea of practicing compassion through sameness? What does this idea mean for how we relate to people? Does it matter if the people are strangers or friends? Does it matter if we like them or we don't? Feel free to share your thoughts!

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