Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Compassion: what is the point?

About nine years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was so happy to finally get a diagnosis that I didn’t think much about what it would mean to deal with this disorder for the rest of my life. That changed. I spent seven years trying to figure out how to live with it and ultimately only one very simple idea worked: being kind to myself. I repeated this over and over because it gave me a reason for not doing things that made me miserable. The thing with fibromyalgia (FMS) is this: if you push yourself, you tend to get flare-ups and you don’t want that because they suck. They suck MASSIVELY. And this idea worked. I stopped volunteering at my kid’s school library. It’s a worthy thing to do, the kids loved it, but standing around in a room filled with dust and shrieking children and a serious lack of sunlight made the FMS flare so bad I would go home feeling like a zombie with a hangover. I stopped cleaning my house every week (pushing a vacuum = flareup). I stopped gardening. I stopped bowling. But even more than those physical things, the mental anguish had to stop. I needed to stop berating myself for not doing stuff because FMS is intricately tied to one’s mental state. If you’re happy, the FMS is easier to handle. So I began writing a lot more seriously, because it made me happy. I stopped worrying about what other people had accomplished that I couldn’t (ok, I’m still trying to do this). I spent seven years working on this idea.
Once I mostly figured out what worked and what didn’t, surprisingly, the lack of self-flagellation opened up an entire world of things I didn’t know I could do. I didn’t realize I could dance, or travel with my kids. I didn’t know I could complete an MS 150 (bicycle charity ride). I didn’t know my family would be happier because I said no more often; there are so many things a woman in this society is supposed to do (most of which I hated). I never would have guessed, but I suppose happiness is contagious. Then one day I woke up and realized that I wanted to try something different. What if I applied this idea to others, not just myself?
I knew that would be tricky. If I spent too much time and energy being kind to others, I would get sucked right back into volunteering and spending time doing things that caused massive flare-ups. And I couldn’t figure out why I wanted to extend the sentiment. What is the point of compassion, really? It’s not reciprocal. I don’t care what anyone says, I know from experience: it doesn’t matter how many times you open doors for other people, it does not guarantee that more doors will be opened for you. People often suck and there’s really no way around that. But why? Why do people suck? Why is life so often violent? I asked myself this question over and over again, and since I’m a writer, the answer became vitally important. I mean, how do I write about people if I don’t understand what makes them tick? How do I appeal to readers if I don’t know what they feel?
I asked around. Seems I’m not the only person with an annoying health problem. I asked around some more, and it seems that I’m not the only person who has kids with health problems. I’m not even the worst off, not by a long shot. This was interesting. Maybe everyone is cranky at the grocery store because they have a migraine. Or a mother in a nursing home they can’t afford. Or whatever. So, okay, that sucks, I said to myself. What happens if I hold open a door? I tried it. The relief on some faces was its own reward. If I opened a door and paired it with a smile, it was even more fun. Simple. And it made me happy. Which made me feel better. Sure, sometimes I still wake up and can’t tell if I’m a zombie or a living person, but usually by noon I’m okay. If I listen to my friend telling me about her hideous day and then smile and joke around with her, it makes her happy. This makes me happy. But even more importantly, it makes me a better writer. I know why people do the things they do sometimes and this will help me write awesome novels with complex characters and who suddenly wake up with super-powers and save the universe.
It’s weird, but so far I’ve found being compassionate to others is much more difficult than being nice to myself. The effects are not immediate. The results are often not what I expect. I get cut off a lot in traffic and people sometimes give me dirty looks when I smile at them. Sometimes I forget that not everyone thinks the same way I do. Not everyone wants to think the way I do, and I forget that some things which are very important to me are anathema to others. Oddly, this pursuit of compassion is making me more open-minded not less.
Ultimately, I suppose compassion, empathy, sympathy, whatever you want to call it is a selfish endeavor. If you expect others to treat you well, you might grow resentful when they don’t. That’s self-defeating. But if you are compassionate to others because you think it will make you a better person, it will. If by being compassionate you learn patience, that is a wonderful thing and your kids will thank you when they spill grape juice on the carpet. If compassion teaches you how to forgive yourself, awesome. I’m not proselytizing here. I’m just saying: this works for me. It makes me happy.
Addendum: I wrote this several days ago, before a massive flare-up that made all these words seem like a foray into the idealistic world of self-righteousness. Except, well, they’re all still true. Compassion is lovely, but it’s not a perfect solution. Compassion, for oneself, for others, is not the holy grail of happiness. It’s a brick. It’s useful and durable and it has a lot of staying power, and sometimes it’s fun to throw it through a window, but by itself it isn’t the answer. I don’t know exactly what makes happiness so elusive, but I know compassion is something that can help alleviate misery from time to time. That makes it worth the effort, at least for me.

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