Mar 17, 2013

Compassion Can Be A Heathen Value

There are many things that I love about being a polytheist. One of these is that we are not all bound to a single path. Our Gods and Goddesses treat us as adults, expecting us to grow and explore in ways that honor the callings of our own hearts. There is a greatness, a richness, to be found in diversity.

Compassion is probably not the first word that will come to mind in a discussion of Heathenism. Honor and bravery, certainly, but compassion? I can only write of my own experiences, and these are shaped by the God I am devoted to.

Frankly, the warrior way is not my way. It took me some time to really come to terms with this. Even in early childhood, I'd argue highly unpopular points before both classmates and adults--not because I enjoyed conflict (I didn't and I still don't), but because I believed that these points were the truth, and that the truth was far more important than my personal comfort. I had a fighter's spirit. I thought that this was my strength, and that, with sheer force of mind and will, I could batter my way through whatever stood between me and my goals.

This approach may have its place at times, but as I grew older, I came to realize that the feel and the tone of things matter. They matter deeply. I could try to harden my heart, to grit my teeth, and to push through. But in the meantime, life was still going on. The sun was still rising and falling, and time was ebbing away.

Ultimately, compassion is the wisdom of slowing down. It is the wisdom of not always living on the edge of the blade, trying to press or cut through everything in sight. Compassion for ourselves allows us listen to our own rhythms and draw from our own wellsprings. It is about authenticity. People feel as they feel. They may or may not decide to act on that information, but they cultivate a relentless sort of honesty within themselves. The societal messages, on the other hand, are quite different: keep pushing on, just get over it, stop being so sensitive, etc. Compassion offers another way, an antidote to all that coldness.

I have a somewhat radical theory about emotions, one which ties into compassion. My theory is that no emotion is irrational. No emotion, ever. The "facts" underlying the emotion can be irrational, and the expression of the emotion can be irrational (perhaps even punishable as a crime), but the emotion itself will always make sense in its context. A paranoid man is very sensibly afraid. The attackers he fears are all in his head, but his feeling of dread is utterly rational. You can't reach out to him without acknowledging his pain, his very human experience of fear. I think this is where we so often go wrong. We try to control our emotions as they happen instead of looking at their roots. We even tell our children that they should feel one thing and not another thing. We don't teach them that they can feel many, conflicting things at the same time, or how to honor that confusing experience. When we're adults, we're that much harder on ourselves and on others. Just grow up, right?

Interestingly, psychology is starting to show that the "push though it" attitude can actually detract from one's goals. If you tell someone "I don't do x," as opposed to "I can't (or shouldn't) do x," you'll have better results. The first phrase implicates having personal agency; the second takes agency away.

To the uncritical mind, it may seem "compassionate" to not punish anyone for anything. We need not deny reality in the name of compassion. That would be foolishness indeed. Some actions must have consequences.

A genuine compassion can coexist with dedication, honor, and duty. Compassion for ourselves and others reminds us to hold the boundaries that we must hold, and gives heart and meaning to our deeds. Compassion can be a truly Heathen value.

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