How can it be, it is already December again. Here we are, at a time of year when people seem to have a heightened desire to practice generosity and kindness. Yet, our social and political environment has enveloped the masses in palpable levels of fear and anxiety, relentless acts of hate and violence and overt emboldened bigotry are all around us, and the weight of raw interpersonal conflict is heavy.
In the midst of this, local members of the Olympia faith community developed and put forward a “Charter for Compassion,” which is said to be a statement of shared values and standards of behavior that nurtures the well-being of all people. The Olympia City Council voted to support this charter and also reinforced the stated values through a resolution. I commend and appreciate both actions.
Among the shared values and standards of behavior outlined in the charter are practicing respect and compassion, engaging in civil dialogue, honoring each individual, creating a society where all people are able to live their best selves, working together for the common good, and speaking out against bigotry, racism and religious prejudice. These are, indeed, behaviors that would be very good for us as individuals and collectively as a community.
While the strategies outlined are worthy, I would argue that putting them into action is easier said than done. So, how do we take a set of recommendations and standards of behavior aimed at cultivating a compassionate community and put them into action? I’ll share my perspective.
Compassion, as I understand it, is an act of trying to lessen someone’s pain. It is a genuine gesture of love and care delivered in a way that does not superimpose our own presumptions or prejudices. Compassion, therefore, entails being truly open minded and open hearted towards another’s experience. With this in mind, compassion is as much an act of care as it is the skill of examining and dismantling our limiting patterns of thought.
Sharon Salzberg, author and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, has noted that, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means we need to be passive … yet, this is not what is meant by compassion … Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal.”
As both an act of love as well as a personal practice of not projecting our own expectations on others, compassion needs to be developed and strengthened just as any other skill, so that we are better able to name injustice without hesitation and to enact the values set forth in the community charter.
This December, as we engage in our rituals, religious or spiritual festivities or daily activities and as we are encouraged and motivated to be generous and compassionate, I invite you to join me in approaching compassion as the process of becoming more open-hearted through the practice of genuinely opening our minds to the experiences of others.
Hillary Soens, CEO of the YWCA Olympia, is an Olympia resident and member of The Olympian’s 2016 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org