Practicing Compassion When You Don’t Connect

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One of the most ubiquitous principles across belief systems all over the world is the concept of showing compassion and kindness. Treat others as you would have them treat you, metta meditation, compassion as the heart of morality… Even if you are not religious, I think most would agree that one of the keys to a happy, fulfilled life is sharing what goodness you have in you with others in some way. We show others respect or kindness without demanding that they do something to earn it or show that they deserve it. Every time we take small actions for the sake of others, like saying “thank you” at a checkout or holding open a door for someone else, we show appreciation and respect. We do things sometimes automatically due to social training, other times we make a conscious effort to demonstrate a stance of equality or subservience to a fellow human being.

These actions carry an innate reward which, for many, is enough to make all actions of goodwill worth the effort. I know I experience great joy when I give someone a gift that they love or I make the effort to visit family who have missed me.

So let’s zero in on what I’ve experienced as a difficulty in the compassion department. It’s easy to practice compassion and love toward my husband. I am very connected to him, and this bond has only strengthened over time. I also enjoy visiting my family every so often. These interactions kind of come with the territory, and I have a firmly established collection of feelings and sentiments that have gone on pretty much unchanged throughout the relationships.

Outside of this small circle is where it becomes difficult sometimes to practice an effortless transmission of love, compassion, understanding, and “goodwill.” In my case, the difficulty lies in a constantly shifting sentiment regarding others based on individual experiences and the collective value that gets assigned to each relationship. To illustrate, I will compare and contrast my husband’s long-time friendships with my own tendencies.

Over the decade I’ve been married to my husband, I’ve come to appreciate the lengths to which he will go to maintain and support a friendship. Even those friends he hasn’t seen in a while hold a prominent place in his heart because of the established connection and an unchanging value he’s placed on his relationship with them. He will have arguments and disagreements with his friends, even to the point of raised voices and flinging insults, but after these feelings cool, this bond that exists between himself and his friends is exactly the way it has been.

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I have to admit that, even now, this is both confusing and fascinating to me. Contrast my husband’s behavior with my own in one of the scenarios I often use to illustrate how I deal with people:

I had “friendships” in college which consisted of little more than people with whom I’d get together and drink. I agree that this doesn’t really count as friendship, but such was the strength of most of the relationships I had in college. I didn’t drink with everyone I associated with, but all of them were based on tenuous connections like music or playing games. These things are often sufficient to encourage the birth of a real friendship, but I’ve never understood how this evolution is supposed to come about…though that’s a whole other post. When a person with whom I’d spent almost every day with for months did something I felt was offensive—literally the first offense—I dropped them from my life with absolute finality. I didn’t feel a thing when I made the decision or afterward, even when I received call after call asking for an explanation or another chance.

I want to say I’m not proud of this behavior, but it is an interesting and important facet of my history. The disappearance of these people from my life caused zero emotion in me, and I feel this demonstrates the absence of any real connection at all. This, even though I spent so much time with them doing stuff we both loved, sharing thoughts and feelings, etc. All the stuff that usually contributes to a real and lasting friendship. This connection that is supposed to form with people over time never happened for me, and, tragically, this was sometimes one-sided. I’ve never been someone who is willing to fake reciprocity of feelings, and so many people in my life who have felt something for me, either as a friend or wanting something more, have been left with very little response from me, and I’ve always felt guilty about it. Because the absurdity of this situation is that I experience loneliness on a fairly regular basis…all while being surrounded by people who care for me! My husband’s friends, family, acquaintances who would be eager to be friends…the harsh reality is that most of the time, I am unbearably bored with the conversations that happen. What’s even more difficult to admit is that I feel little trade of value in these relationships. I’ve written before about how if you’re a friend to an Aspie, it means he/she really feels strongly about the value of that relationship. Because the simple truth is that it’s difficult to find people with whom someone on the spectrum can grow a real bond and connection. I know some people who are able to just be instant friends with people, and it’s a beautiful thing…but it’s definitely not my fate.

Coming back around to the subject, I personally have been studying and putting Buddhist principles into practice in my life. Working on feeling and showing compassion for others is a difficult one when you don’t much care for the company of the majority of people you’ve come into contact with over the course of your life. But I have discovered something that has become key in my meditation and daily practice, which is to ground myself in the realization that we are all in the same boat as human beings trying to find our way through life. None of us asked to be here, and none of us asked to experience pain and hardship inherent in human life. So my personal task I’ve challenged myself with is to reorient my thought patterns when I am about to judge someone for their actions, words, beliefs, values, etc. We all demonstrate the best and worst of humanity at different times in our lives. We can’t evaluate and define a human being based on a single action. People’s emotions are constantly shifting, and we take actions we sometimes regret when one of those emotions overtakes the others, or when acute emotion or weariness destroys our willpower to act in a different way. Sometimes the consequences are minor, sometimes they are profound and lifechanging. I try to remember our basic humanness and, just as importantly, my own downfalls in the wake of any number of influences going on in my life. Starting from that place, I can summon a tenderness and appreciation that includes everyone.

I’d love to hear other strategies for remaining open to compassion. I feel that the unfortunate consequence of not making an effort in this area is that you end up even more isolated and stoic as you let in all the bad in people being showcased in social media and such. It would be easy to just switch off and stop caring about your relationship to the world, but I can’t even fathom how costly that would be in the long run. I hope I never find out.

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