Compassion in an age of Cynicism


I read an article once about tribalism — it was some pseudo-scientific sociological essay that sought to explain if not excuse racism. It purported that we gather in like groups for protection, and that we, as human beings, naturally shun what is different and fear what we don’t understand — and that fear is a survival mechanism.

I thought that in some ways it made some valid points, but then, it reduced humans to little more than chemical reactions and genetic triggers and actors in a pre-designed script. I’d like to think we’re more than that. I’d like to think that we can choose to think outside of those boundaries and embrace each other as all belonging to the human race. I’d like to think that people are people.

At least, the idealist in me wants to believe that.

I’m supposed to be writing something about compassion, and yet I’m filled with cynicism. I know that tomorrow, some fundamentalist group will attack and kill someone or ones that represent who they see as their enemy. I know that as I type this, some cop is likely pulling the trigger based on his or her own prejudices rather than proper cause. I know that right now some soldier is laying down their life because they think they’re doing their patriotic duty, but really, they’re being used as pawns in some asshole’s political game. I know that right now, some woman is being raped, and in her heart, she’s been programmed to believe that somehow it’s her fault. I know that right now, some child is having their childhood stolen from them by a father who should have never had children.

I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to write about, and I’m not even sure if you’re still reading this, but I often think about the strange world we live in — this Internet generation, where we are subjected to pain on a truly global level all day every day, if we choose to let it in. This on top of the every day conflicts of our personal lives, and for those of us who feel things SO deeply, it can truly be debilitating. I sometimes break down, or have to withdraw. It’s too much.

But I’m not being very focused, and I apologize.

I remember high school. The worst best years of my life. I learned a lot of hard lessons that have stuck with me, about the surface of things, and what you never see. The world has learned some hard lessons about what lies beneath the faces of angry children. I’m talking about the masks that we wear, some of us better than others. Some people wear masks of anger for protection — but it’s only because they are so hurt inside. I was a very angry child; a furious teenager. I was outcast, a loser. Weird, strange, odd, a loner. In a different culture, I might have been the type to climb a watchtower and take shots at my classmates — I certainly had enough hatred in me. They treated me terribly. I fantasized about suicide all the time, between life at home and life at school, there was nowhere I could go to feel safe from bullying and abuse.

One day, I left for school to get on the bus, and I’d just received a beating from my father. I did my very best to keep it together, but ended up burying my face in my coat and crying. Of course, I ended up being mocked all day, and for days afterward. Most of my school career was spent being mocked for one reason or another. I got jumped a few times by people I didn’t even know, and had no reason to fear, except that they apparently knew me, and wanted to hurt me.

I learned very early that people are cruel. It gave me an eye of recognition for others like me that might be in silent pain. Those people that wore masks of anger or fear, those that preferred to be by themselves than in a crowd.

It made me compassionate toward people, because I learned not to judge by what face they showed to the masses. I had a secret friendship with one of the most popular girls in my school, because she hated the people that called her friend. She used to come and sit with me sometimes at lunch and together we’d play guitar — we used to do a pretty good version of Wish You Were Here. In public, I didn’t exist, really. It’s shitty, looking back, but that’s how it was. Later, I’d learn she’d become a heroin addict — she had some pain of her own, you see, but nobody saw it until it was too late.

So I’m supposed to be talking about compassion, but everything that I came up with in my head seemed to trite, or too disingenuous. We’ve moved WAY beyond the 1980’s Whitney Houston I believe the children are the future… or We Are the World. We didn’t feed the children of Africa, we haven’t cured AIDS, there are still assholes in the world that picket gay weddings — hell, there are still assholes in the world that wave the Nazi flag — in about 10 seconds, you could do an internet search and find things that would make your stomach churn. So instead of the big picture — this ENORMOUS GLOBAL VILLAGE we now live in (gee fucking thanks, Marshall McLuhan), my little talk about compassion is directed to you and you alone. Yeah, you. Are you still reading?

I read a great graphic novel one time (actually more than once — it may be my very FAVOURITE graphic novel, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, called Signal to Noise) and it was about the end of the world. Not entirely, but that’s where it starts. It states that the world is ending every day — for someone. Sort of puts the EGO on a pedestal, but it’s true. Our world can be as big as a circus tent or as small as our arm’s reach.

If you want to change the world — change YOUR world. Be compassionate to everyone you meet — treat everyone with dignity. Do unto others and all that. Realize that the surface of things is so fragile, and that we are all so much more on the inside. We are all time and relative dimensions in space, and you cannot know all there is to know at a glance. Do not assume you know someone because you’ve spoken to them on the internet. Do not dismiss someone because they don’t like the same books/films/music as you.

Everyone you encounter is your world. Friends, family, co-workers, strangers, internet people. You have an opportunity, likely, every day, to be an asshole, or to be kind. Sometimes it means turning the other cheek and letting someone be an asshole to you.

I don’t know if this has made any sense. Surely it’s not going to win any awards for coherency, but in my defense, darlings, I have a sinus headache and I’m experiencing mild hallucinations from the medication.

I’m sorry, you eternal optimists; you cheerful idealists, with your unshakable faith in the triumph of the human spirit. There will always be war, famine, poverty, abuse, rape and murder. The heart of man is eternally wicked, and full of every sort of evil. You can’t change the entire world — but you can change your world for the better, and like a stone dropped in a pond (watch out for falling cliches) that change can cause a change in others, until the ripples keep moving out as you increase the size of your world.


54 responses to “Compassion in an age of Cynicism

  1. you can’t change the world but you can change the world of one person! (my personal philosophy)

    Unfortunately you are right, there will always be these horrid things in this world, but you can choose to be or not to be an asshole as you put it.
    what’s wrong with an occasional cliche?
    Thank you for letting your ripples affect my world. (Hugs)

  2. I did read the whole thing. As a Christian who believes in sin, I believe evil, whether “minor” types or full-blown, such as ISIS) will always be with us. However, I agree that we need to impact our individual worlds for the positive, as best we can, every day. It won’t eliminate evil/wrong but it can change one person or more and that can change everything.


  3. “Everyone you encounter is your world. Friends, family, co-workers, strangers, internet people. You have an opportunity, likely, every day, to be an asshole, or to be kind. Sometimes it means turning the other cheek and letting someone be an asshole to you.” – I am kind and this is what brings me a lot of suffering, because I am sick of feeling like an asshole and sick of feeling like I always need to be better, and better, and give more and more, like I am stupid and better of. It feels like whatever I do, the definition of my humanity will always be a gaping hole,
    I am trying hard to think of something positive to pull out from your article, but I just can’t (and the fault goes on my own persona entirely!) and I hope that is ok.

    • It’s okay, this came from a very cynical place. What I have just said is not easy, if it were everybody would be nice to each other. Sometimes people offend you sometimes people just get on your nerves sometimes people make you angry for no reason you could even understand. And I hear you. Every once in a while, I give in to my worst nature, and embrace my inner asshole. I just threw up my hands and say fuck it I’m an asshole. I lower my own expectations of myself. I say don’t beat yourself up over it Selena, but just keep trying to move forward. Sometimes your world is just your son and your husband. If you can be the best you possible for them, that’s a start. I know you’re really hard on yourself and you have a low estimation of your friendship, because I’m the same way too. But you came into my life and reignited a passion that I had lost and I think you for that. When the time is right I will pick that up again. But because of you, I tried new things. You made my world a better place.

  4. Cherie, this is raw and painful and real. This line “between life at home and life at school, there was nowhere I could go to feel safe from bullying and abuse” struck at me particularly. Though I was never beaten, it rings true.

    But I love your message that the world can be as small as the reach of your arm.

    This post didn’t need your coherence – it needed your heart, and it has that, and it is precious and pain-filled and broken and mended and wonderful.

    Remember – being human is enough to raise the head of the lowliest beggar and bow the head of the proudest king.

  5. This is lovely. Even with that cynicism at the heart, you wove something positive and empowering around it and came out the other side. This is tough world for altruism; focusing on what is within our reach to change is the perfect message.

    • Wide-eyed optimism usually ends with disheartened disappointment. When you can actually SEE the difference you can make in someone’s life on a personal level, it’s much more rewarding for all involved.

  6. I keep my world of immediacy (those people I have to have contact with on a daily basis) very small. It’s the only way I keep my sanity. I want to be an optimist, but when I read about the brutal death of a black man in Mississippi by some teenage boys who did it simply because they hate black people … kind of makes me hate the color of my own skin. I have low expectations of adults, but I’m desperate to believe there’s hope with young people. Until I read stories like that and then I just want to weep. I think my husband read the same article on tribalism because for a long time he was hung up on the concept, and when I read news stories about senseless death and violence, I think, well, maybe there is a point. He is far more cynical about human nature than I am, but my hope just feels too desperate.
    I try to be nice. I try to be kind. I try to treat people with the respect and consideration I would like them to give me. And, yes, that means I get taken advantage of. That means that some people think of me as a weak individual because I’ll offer to help rather than just walk away. That used to mean a lot to me. I used to care what people thought of me, but I’m too old now. I’ve come to believe what’s more important is how I feel about myself, not how other people feel about me. Fuck ’em if they think I’m weak and ripe for abuse. As long as I can live with myself and my actions, I just really don’t care what they think. Of course, a lot of this way of thinking occurred after I had my hysterectomy and was drop-kicked into menopause in my early 40s. I haven’t been the same since and I’m glad for it 😉
    And your post was eloquent. You capture the tension between trying to be compassionate in a world full of horrors and trying to be realistic. Compassion wins out.

    • I think it’s a painful thing, that moment when you realize the truth about the world — but it doesn’t have to be a crushing thing. You can look at the world as it is and make a plan to live in it, and do your best to stave off the darkness by being a light.

  7. You make a lot of excellent points here, Helena. Compassion is a choice, and people will often choose anger, hate, violence, etc. over that. All that you, I, and anyone else reading the #1000Speak posts can do is make the right choice – the choice to BE compassionate – and hope it leaves our corner of the world a brighter, less frightening place to be in. It’s an honest way of looking at things, and offers a different perspective than some of the other posts I’ve read today. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • I promise I wasn’t trying to be negative, Sara, I just couldn’t bring myself to be wide-eyed and unrealistic. We have to make the very best of the world we live in, but first we need to accept some of the truths about that world.

      • Oh no, I didn’t think you were being negative at all, Helena. (And my apologies if my first response came across that way.) I thought your post was a necessary reminder of the harshest aspects of reality, and how we can only do so much. We have to be content – and we can be content – with what we can do at arm’s length to bring a little more light and kindness, even if it’s just a tiny bit. So, no worries about your approach. I completely understood what you were trying to say – and thank you for having the courage to take that angle. 😉

  8. You’re right, we can’t change the entire world. We won’t eradicate evil. Yet if we make the world even a slightly better place for just one person I think we all benefit in some way. But then, you said that, and as we each cast our stones of compassion into the world the ripples may become waves, maybe not big enough to wash out that evil, but at least to help some people.

  9. I think, based on my experiences, and what I have read, that the most compassionate people are (usually) the people who have endured the beatings and mockery of others. We have learned to walk away, to turn the other cheek, to choose our battles. We have learned that the smallest act of kindness from us can change someone’s attitude, if not forever at least for a moment. I think that you nailed this.

    • Thanks, Pattie. I think compassion in small gestures that actually help someone in need is greater and more effective than grand gestures that are usually little more than lipservice. (OHSHITI”MGONNAGETCRUCIFIED)

  10. This was a great rant/read from your heart. You are right. There are always going to be “meanies” – uncaring , rude, abusive, power-hungry, etc., people. All you can do is change/work on changing yourself by loving yourself and others

  11. Well it all made complete sense to me and in a sad way I think it takes great sadness to recognize great sadness in others and the world is ending everyday. I would do well to remember that notion because I think it would go a long way in building the compassion I know I often lack.

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  13. You have captured SO many thoughts that often twirl around in my mind. I rarely watch the news or follow politics as it can get too much for me. The world we live in now is as beautiful as it is scary. The things that are still happening are heartbreaking. I’m fully aware of it though. Some days a tad too aware. So in order to stay positive and sane, I try to change things for myself and hopefully it rubs off.

    As for that essay you read? That part that said “human beings, naturally shun what is different” – That just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially not when you think that we live in a world where so many things are pre-designed, norms and values go back ages ago and are still alive in a society that thrives on technology, expectations are already there as soon as you are born. If you come into this world with innocent eyes and an unbiased mind, how can you shun what is different?

    You’ve made me think here. Thank you for that 🙂 And, thank you for sharing this with us. Really loved your piece.

  14. I, like you, am pretty cynical towards the human race. There are fewer and fewer reasons to believe in humanity by the day. We are drowning in intolerance, ignorance, and fear. We refuse to consider conflicting points of view. We are right and they are wrong. We are stubborn. We are arrogant. We take our pain out on others. Most of all, though, we are wrong.

    I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to change the world. I’m not even sure how to change my own. All I know is that this world isn’t working. We can do better. We owe it to ourselves and our children to do better.

    • I’m not saying we have to accept the world as it is, but consider the fact that it’s the only world we’ve got, and perhaps we can start by changing our attitudes to one of trying to make the best of what actually exists rather than trying to imagine a hypothetical utopia. There’s a singer-songwriter by the name of Steve Forbert (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him) who had a great little line that said “You say life is strange, but compared to what?”

      • I don’t know if I have the fortitude to be positive in the face of such overwhelming negativity. Hence why I try to avoid news outlets as often as I can. I don’t want to be cynical. I don’t want to assume the worst. When you encounter nothing but negativity, though, what else can you possibly know?

      • Precisely. I think it’s also why, when I find out someone I thought was good people actually isn’t, it shatters my heart.

      • I’m sorry, Scott. I’ve apologized for slashing your tires and having sex with all your ex’s a dozen times now. I don’t know what I’ve got to do to make you know how sorry I am.

  15. Dear friend, you just broke my heart a little. I read this and feel like crying. I wasn’t bullied. I wasn’t abused (at least not by family). The fact that any child has to go through these things just tears me apart. And I’m one of those starry eyed optimist you speak of. At times I know it’s wishful thinking but most of the time I have hope. And I absolutely agree. If we all focused on changing our own little piece of the world and helping those right in front of us we could make a huge difference.

  16. Reblogged this on Christina Anne Hawthorne and commented:
    That place I am too often too scared to go in my writing and in my life is, to a degree, represented here. What’s most important—and this I do touch on—is that we start with one, with ourselves, that we summon and embrace our compassion for others.

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