To Live With Compassion

My father and I both tend to be rather outsized, loud, dramatic people, the sort of people who enjoy being the centre of attention, who are also blunt and sometimes appear to ride roughshod over everything around us in much the way that a clumsy puppy tramples the garden. At our hearts, though, both of us are more complex than that, and it’s the thing we most dislike talking about—of all the things we talk about, and all the talking we do, we don’t really talk about feelings. Feelings make us edgy and it makes us edgier still to talk about things like life philosophies; we’d much rather armour ourselves in a wall of jokes about tree hugging and hippies.

And that’s why I have trouble writing this piece, because I want to build up a layer of sarcasm to entertain the reader, to turn it into a performance rather than a simple statement of fact, because the simple statement of fact makes me uncomfortable, since it involves feelings. Please forgive me if I seem to wander, it’s only because I’m trying to gather my thoughts for a moment.

Someone asked me the other day what my life philosophy was, being an atheist, being someone who doesn’t belong to the feminist movement. And I said something about social justice but a more accurate response would have been that my life philosophy is to live with compassion. I want the world to be a safer place for all the living things in it, from the coral in the sea to the people on the land, and I feel, intensely, that it is not and this is something we need to fix.

There is a common belief that autistic people are unfeeling automatons and that hasn’t been my experience. Rather, the problem is that we feel too much and for me that sometimes requires an appearance of retreating and hiding, of shutting down, because the alternative is to be raw. Living with compassion is the only way I can navigate the world and be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning; caring for other beings and believing they deserve equal space in the world is my foundational belief.

I believe that science is amazing and the diversity of life on earth is the result of millions of years of evolution, which surely comes as no surprise to readers. More than that, though, I believe that the planet contains a series of interconnected systems that are most functional when they interact with each other compassionately. Even the lionness is compassionate when selecting prey and taking it down quickly and efficiently; this is not about a world without violence. Sometimes violence is necessary for survival.

Humans introduce the opposite of compassion, with wanton torture of the beings around them and each other, and it unbalances the systems around us. This is the point where I am fighting my sarcasm, trying to stay genuine; the truth of the matter is that I see many of the failures of humanity as a failure of compassion, which includes awareness. Whether you’re talking about environmental problems brought about by rampant exploitation of the Earth’s resources, or the abuse of workers in the fields where our crops are grown. In all these cases, there is a fundamental disconnect between the source and the product, there is a commodification of living beings to the exclusion of their essential right to be alive, and to be happy while alive.

The violence I see between humans, on the macro and micro scale, often stems back to a failure of compassion; to a refusal to understand the humanity of the target, to the determination to win at any cost, to belief in moral, ethical, religious, or cultural superiority. It is a lack of compassion that creates not just hatred and fear of the other, but the willingness to act on that; lack of compassion that makes people attack each other with missiles or words or spears.

Without sensitivity to the world around us, I feel like humanity is lost, floating in a bubble of its own creation. People spend so much times isolating themselves from the impacts of their lack of compassion that they must be aware, on some level, of what they’re doing. Yet, rather than facing it, they run from it. And then they tell us that an entire group of people are ‘unfeeling’ or they say that people fighting for justice—for racial justice, environmental justice, gender justice, economic justice, food justice, disability justice—are ‘too sensitive’ and can’t be trusted to play a role in shaping social attitudes and policy. We are the problem, they say, with our messy belief that the world should be a better place.

My life philosophy doesn’t require others to follow it, doesn’t mean that I look down on people who don’t think the way I do; that would be a failure of compassion on my part, and a refusal to recognise the humanity of the people around me. It would also be a failure to recognise that it’s possible to have many paths leading in the same direction, and we may meet along the way sometimes and there find solidarity in each other.

I find it funny, as someone who tries to live with compassion, that I have so much difficulty talking about feelings, feel such a strong need to cover everything in a brittle shell before daring to present it to the world; both a flaw of personality and one of hard-learned lessons. I know that I will revise and edit this over and over again before I publish it, and maybe I will delete it out of fear. Because none of us are perfect, and sometimes the person I have the hardest time finding compassion for is myself.