The idea of compassion has been on my mind lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about how out of the ordinary my life path is, how unconventional, and how far from what the mainstream would term ‘normal’. Being an artist inevitably seems to mean putting ourselves in positions that defy the commonplace rules. In a sense being ‘anti-establishment’. Making pots for a living hardly even qualifies as a living for most people….
And its this difference between our values that requires compassionate understanding. Even if our reasons seem outlandish and utterly wrongheaded they are our reasons for leading this life. And if they cannot be accepted for what they are, we for who we are, then outsiders will often feel there is something wrong with us, that we are not doing this ‘living’ thing right, that we are making a mess of things. In their terms…..
So this morning I saw a post on facebook that got my attention. It talked about compassion as if compassion were defined by the giver and not the receiver of compassion. And this just seems too egocentric to actually reflect what I would call compassion. How can we understand other people if we can only take them on our terms and according to our own values?
And isn’t this the crux of art in the world? That art offers up different perspectives on the world, and forces us to think outside the box? Outside the confines of our parochial and contingent, habitual and self centered framework? When I think about it for even a moment it seems all too obvious that all art stands or falls on our human capacity for compassion. Our capacity to step outside ourselves, outside rigidly defined traditions, and see things from a different perspective. See new things.
And so too our fellowship with our community and neighbors on this planet…..
Here’s what my friend said that got me kicking and screaming:
i have busted my ass to remain sane…. sometimes i expect the same from others….. sometimes i lose my patience with being a healer and i just want people to get a grip.
Here’s how I responded:
“Does compassion truly mean thinking that other people need to be fixed? That what we are offering is necessarily the best thing for them or that we know better than they what they need? Wouldn’t true compassion also mean accepting that other’s decision to follow their own path? How can we call it compassion if we don’t also have compassion for that person’s decision to suffer? Is it compassion only when its directed at people who agree with us or with our perception that what they need is change? Moreover, is it compassion only when that person accepts the ‘compassionate hand’ being offered? Don’t we also need compassion for the people who refuse us? Maybe that’s even the better test of compassion: That we honor these others despite their disagreement with us……”
As a person who also teaches pottery part time I also have to find my way to understanding why each of my students is in my class. Sometimes its to learn, and I have pretty good ideas how to help when that’s the case. Sometimes its just to try something new, to be entertained for a few evenings, and I have some ideas for how to make the experience interesting and worthwhile for these students. Sometimes the student is there with preconceptions and expectations that are so wholly unrealistic and unattainable that I need to address their motivations with what things can reasonably be expected. I need to pull them back from the lemminglike headlong rush over the cliff of misguided expectations*. Sometimes students will be there not so much to learn, not so much for anything to do with the clay itself or the practice of pottery, but for the social dynamic or for the sheer difference from the person’s normal daily grind. Sometimes students are in class simply to relax and blow off steam. It could have been Tiddlywinks or knitting for all it mattered to them. For these students I need to keep different balls in the air, juggling their needs along with the needs of others….
Each student is an individual riddle to solve, and draws unique and different things out of me. Teaching is less about imparting a monolith of information and more about unique relationships with individual students.
But I used to think that being a student meant being there to learn, end of story. This meant that in this most important respect students were all the same. They were all starting from ‘square one’ as beginners. And that therefor it was my job to ‘fix’ them, to fix their ignorance. Teaching used to be one size fits all, my way or the highway. Teaching used to be more about me than about my students, what I had to give rather than what they could, desired, or needed to receive. They would succeed or fail entirely according to my standards.
I was, in fact, infatuated with my own vision of why I was there and what I could give them. What they may have wanted or needed was irrelevant. I was not compassionate, in that sense. They suffered ignorance, and if they couldn’t pick up the lessons I was providing then that’s on them. Their failure…..
So I have learned a bit since then. I have learned that no matter how well I know things from my own perspective I will rarely ever cross over to how other people view things. Not without compassion. And the difference in the world is not something that needs to be ‘fixed’ by all getting on the same page, by uniformity and conforming to one set of values. Rather, the natural state of the world is its multiplicity and diversity. And this is not a bad thing….
If the world is bigger than my one take on it, then I can only be ‘right’ about things to a limited and excruciatingly infinitesimal respect. Being unwilling to see things from others’ points of view only means that we have successfully quarantined our own selves within that tiny box….. The rest of the world goes on just fine by itself and according to its own perplexing and contradictory rules and values. It takes up my own stubborn intransigence along with all the other viewpoints.
My outrage that others don’t want to be ‘fixed’ only seems to matter to me. ‘Fixing’ even seems to mean one thing to me and quite different things to other people. No one seems to agree even on this….. And the discomfort I feel with my expectations of how other people should lead their lives only seems more directed at me than directed at other people.
The continual violation of my expectations ought to eventually teach me that things will never work out exactly as I imagine. Expectation carries with it the seeds of frustration.
What I need to remember is that caring about other people is not the same as wanting to ‘fix’ them. That’s not what compassion seems to mean. Compassion seems to mean that we reject our expectations of others or that they will fit our tidy preconceptions. We can accept them for who they are or continually be disappointed that they don’t measure up to our expectations and standards. Being individual means being fundamentally different, and we can honor that or not. And in the words of my fb friend, “sink or swim, baby…. Its all up to you”.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/66753575″>It’s Not About the Nail</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jheadley”>Jason Headley</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Something to think about, at least.
Make beauty real!
* It occurred to me that this still sounded like I was trying to ‘fix’ these students. And in a sense it is. But showing a person alternatives is not the same as insisting they make a different choice.
I’ve had several students recently that despite all my teacherly flailings continually took what I said and did the opposite. Not out of spite, but sometimes out of sheer stubborn determination to power through under their own influence alone. And when that is the case I find I simply have to stand aside and let the train wreck pile up. Sometimes students have to see the consequences of their decisions before a teaching moment is actually opened up for them. Compassion in this instance means letting them drive over the cliff, but throwing a parachute down after them in case they choose to grab hold of it. You can’t make them take it, and they’d never see the need to have it with them when they first plunged over the edge.
And even if they decide against the chute, you must still honor that decision. Its their choice to make. You can lead a horse to water, but its nobody else’s responsibility for them to drink….. The hunger strike of horses is a sometimes profound decision…..