Art, teaching, and the meaning of compassion

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:

suffering is of our own choosing. we choose to be wounded, neglected and alone. when someone offers us a compassionate hand, a possible solution to our problem and we decide to dismiss that solution with distrust and excuses, we have sealed our own fate. there is no one else to blame. there is no power in declaring yourself the victim of your own choices, circumstances and delusions. sink or swim, baby…. it’s all up to you.
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=”″>It’s Not About the Nail</a> from <a href=””>Jason Headley</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Something to think about, at least.

Peace all!

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…..

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Art, teaching, and the meaning of compassion

  1. Of course I sound like a complete a*s in this post, and to be honest, that was part of my point. How do we even talk about compassion without drawing attention to the less than compassionate question that inspired it? Wanting to fix the broken toys is itself an act of cruelly pointing out that things are broken, that they are deficient, that they can’t do it on their own but NEED our help…..

    On the opposite side from accepting a person for who they are and in their own terms, when we don’t get them or understand what they are about we are prompted to ask questions. To question another immediately means putting one’s self at a distance from them. It highlights the difference between that person’s perspective and our own. To ask questions is an activity of difference, of dividing. To ask questions is itself an act where compassion is on shaky ground….

    And this is the trouble with the idea of compassion. Compassion is inspired by our own difference from other people, and perhaps even to ourselves. We often don’t measure up to our own standards, and we often can’t explain why we did what we did. And this difference calls out to us, demands a response. And yet compassion asks us to put ourselves in that person’s shoes. But to do that we step to the other side of that difference, and what we thought of as an issue from our own perspective often ends up not being an issue of the same proportions or dimensions when viewed from that other person’s perspective. What we think of as compassion ends up being our own selfish desire to impose our own feelings and desires on other people, no matter how well intentioned we think they are. We fail to inhabit the person’s own concerns, and instead ask them to look at things from our own perspective. We treat our own perspective as the only authentic or valid one from which this feeling of compassion can be generated. But how often is that like deciding a freshwater fish would do better in a saltwater tank? Is our compassion more often of this variety, where we think we know best, simply because we tell ourselves that we are motivated by pure emotions and true caring? That we want to help others, if only they’d listen to us?

    And putting this out there is hardly a compassionate act! Which is why compassion may not be the only value worth aspiring to.

    Okay, I’m starting to scramble my brains…..

    Just thoughts to think about…… I’m blathering out loud, and maybe some of it will stick some place where it will do some good. One can only hope! And that hope treads that same line of compassion and self service.

    (loop….. loop)

  2. More attempts to dig myself out from my swinish hole….

    From Brainpickings:

    Core to this premise is the conception of anxiety as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending on how we approach it. Like Nin herself observed in her reflection of why emotional excess is necessary for writing, Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is essential for creativity. Perhaps the most enduring and thoughtful interpretation of his treatment of the relationship between creativity and anxiety comes from legendary existential psychologist Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety (public library), originally published in 1950:

    We can understand Kierkegaard’s ideas on the relation between guilt and anxiety only by emphasizing that he is always speaking of anxiety in its relation to creativity. Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities (and these are two phases of the same process) — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living. If one does not do this, one is refusing to grow, refusing to avail himself of his possibilities; one is shirking his responsibility to himself. Hence refusal to actualize one’s possibilities brings guilt toward one’s self. But creating also means destroying the status quo of one’s environment, breaking the old forms; it means producing something new and original in human relations as well as in cultural forms (e.g., the creativity of the artist). Thus every experience of creativity has its potentiality of aggression or denial toward other persons in one’s environment or established patterns within one’s self. To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed that something new in the present may be born. Hence, for Kierkegaard, guilt feeling is always a concomitant of anxiety: both are aspects of experiencing and actualizing possibility. The more creative the person, he held, the more anxiety and guilt are potentially present.


    What I would say the implication therefor is is that creativity itself implies a restlessness, and that this is not something that can be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ or ‘healed’, only engaged in. To BE creative means to be actively moving, building new empires and abandoning vast temples. Leaving broken things in our wake. For every new thing that is born something must be sacrificed. A sacred cow placed on the altar.

    The side effect of this movement is that there is always a gulf, a difference between new and old, between you and me. And as much as this difference is a rejection of conformity, a denial of stability, and a dismissal of consensus and agreement, compassion will always dead end in the flux of creative generation.

    Its as if we each are a burning star, throwing out new molten arms, spewing hot gases, and we shed different light where we move and by what we do. And others perceive us not by looking directly into our burning core, but by seeing the influence we bring to the world. People know us by seeing the things we move and are moved by. Its a perspective that casts its own unique shadows, reveals what it reveals and hides what it does not. Its a perspective that has inevitable blind spots…..

    And so our compassion always seems to rest on this distant manifestation of our presence in the universe. Activities we engage in, relationships, jobs, the things we own…. They are all on the outside, and yet we are known by these accidents. Our story is the story of how we moved, what we touched, what things touched us, what things were revealed in our passing.

    And no two stories overlap in exactly the same ways. No two people see things exactly the same way. And seeing others (and even ourselves) is the thing that is apparently least possible. Looking directly into another sun from close up would burn our eyes out. Seeing the world as others see it is at best our most profound guesswork…..

    The closer we get to someone the more we learn what its like to see things from their point of view, the more we seem to occupy the same point of view, inhabit the same life. But never perfectly. Which only makes it the miracle it is that we can even make relative sense of the strangers and acquaintances in our lives….

    And yet, we no more see ourselves directly than we see others. We only seem to ordinarily see ourselves in these distant terms, rather than actually looking inward. In a sense, we are our own greatest mystery. Our sun perpetually shines on the world outside us, not on its own core…..

  3. “The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, Of A Beetle For A Beer Bottle”

    by Robert Krulwich
    June 19, 201312:21 PM

    It was early September, that’s springtime in Western Australia, and two young biologists, Dwayne Gwynne and David Rentz, were on a field trip, wandering dirt roads near the highways, looking for insects, when one of them noticed a loose beer bottle lying on the ground — not so unusual in the Dongara region, where Australians zooming by often launch beer bottles from their car windows. This particular bottle was a “stubbie,” squat, 370 milliliters, colored golden brown.
    Emu beer bottle

    When the two looked more closely, they saw something extra, hanging on the bottom end. It was a beetle, and it was fiercely gripping the glass. They shook it, and it wouldn’t fall off. It wanted to be there.
    Beetle on a bottle

    Looking even closer, they recognized it as an Australian jewel beetle, and looking closer, they noticed it had (as they wrote later) its “genitalia everted — attempting to insert the aedeagus,” which is a very polite way to say they were looking at a beetle attempting to mate with a glass container. Clearly, this was a very confused individual.

    But then they found three more stubby beer bottles, and on two of them, surprisingly, were more male beetles, also “mounting” their bottles. That makes three frustrated males.

    Hmmm. That got them interested. So they wandered about, found four loose stubbies, and placed them side by side on open ground where they could be seen by any male beetles flying overhead. “Within 30 minutes,” they wrote later, “two of the bottles had attracted beetles. In total, 6 male beetles were observed to mount the stubbies. Once on the bottles, the beetles did not leave unless displaced by us.”

    male beetles on bottle

    More surprising, Gwynne and Rentz found one beetle hanging onto his bottle even while when “a number of ants” were busy biting “the soft portions of his everted genitalia” — and still he stuck to his business. This was not just a pattern, this was a mission. What, the two scientists wondered, could explain these beetles’ super-allegiance to Australian beer bottles? It wasn’t the beer. These males didn’t gather at the spout end, and the bottles, the scientists said, were long dry.

    The answer became obvious when they got a close look at a female Australian jewel beetle. Females, as it happens, are golden brown. They are big, much bigger than the males. But most important, they are covered, as you see here, with dimples, little bumps.
    Female beetle

    Australian beer bottles at the time (this happened in the 1980s) were also big, also golden brown, and down near the base, they also had little bumps, arrayed very much like the bumps on a female jewel beetle.
    Bottle bumps

    Clearly, Gwynne and Rentz , the males were unable to distinguish between beer bottles and lady beetles. They thought — or rather their inner wiring told them — they were mating.

    This is what biologists call “an evolutionary trap.” It’s what happens when birds, turtles, moths, beetles, all kinds of animals, wired to respond to certain cues in nature, bump instead into a human inventions and get confused. They try to do the right thing — like having a little baby beetle, and end up spending hours scraping glass.

    When sea turtles finish laying eggs on beaches, they look for moonlight over the ocean. The light tells them which direction leads back to the sea. Hotels with big lights on their end of the beach can confuse mother turtles, making them go the wrong way. Some hotels now douse their lights when sea turtles come to lay their eggs.

    There are so many examples. Farmers in the Midwest used to put red insulators on their electric fences. Hummingbirds thought they were red flowers. If they touched the wire with their beaks, they died. The insulator company, when it realized what was happening, stopped using red paint, and farmers eventually substituted not-red models. As the world gets more crowded, some humans are learning to try — at least some of the time — to be less of a nuisance to other animals.

    That, happily, is how our jewel beetle story ends. When beer companies in Australia learned that their bottles were having a discernible effect on the population of jewel beetles — so many males were spending useless hours fornicating, often dying under the hot Australian sun and leaving no heirs — the companies decided to change their bottles. The little bumps were eliminated to be replaced by smooth glass, the beetles lost all interest bottles, and life in the Australian west — at least beetle life — went back to normal.

    The problem is, this problem doesn’t end. Humans keep inventing things. Animals keep bumping into these things, sometimes with very unhappy results, and we have to keep correcting our mistakes. That’s one reason we’ve been given the big brains, I suppose, to help us undo the many things we’ve done when didn’t even know we were doing them.

    Thanks to Carl Zimmer, Radiolab regular and author of the wonderful blog, The Loom, and the , Jennifer Rehage of Florida International University, and Andrew Sih of University of California, Davis, got me thinking about all this. Also, thanks to two wonderful songwriters out of Britain, Flanders and Swann, who years ago wrote about the impossible love of an armadillo for an Army Tank — one of the most poignant evolutionary traps ever. Their song includes these lines …

    Then I saw them in a hollow, by a yellow muddy bank
    An Armadillo singing … to an armour-plated tank.
    Should I tell him, gaunt and rusting, with the willow tree above,
    This – abandoned on manoeuvres – is the object of your love?

    I left him to his singing,
    Cycled home without a pause,
    Never tell a man the truth
    About the one that he adores.

    And to further celebrate my theme, for those of you who want to see beetle/bottle footage from Australia, here’s a BBC video which would be X-rated if you were an underage beetle unaccompanied by an adult.

  4. Helen Keller:

    “The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of courage — the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men think. No loss by flood and lightening, no destruction of cities and temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many noble lives and impulses as those which his tolerance has destroyed.”

  5. Brainpickings sample of the Judith Butler commencement speech:

    Butler opens with a case for literature as a tool of empathy:

    [The humanities allow us] to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read, but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting, and reflecting that belong to times and spaces we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?

    Echoing Virginia Woolf, she offers a meditation on the ideals of reading:

    Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world — in short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and our acting.

    Reverberating Ray Bradbury’s faith in reading as a prerequisite for democracy, Butler argues:

    An active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory.

    Much like ignorance drives science, Butler suggests, the willingness to not know also propels the humanities:

    We have to continue to shake off what we sometimes think we know in order to lend our imaginations to vibrant and sometimes agonistic spectrums of experience.

    In reflecting on how a humanities education has prepared these young people to take on the world for which they are about to assume “a rather awesome and exciting responsibility,” Butler makes a beautiful case for critical thinking as the foundation of nonviolence:

    You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.

    The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.

  6. And speaking of difference and the need for compassion:

    To be brothers and sisters doesn’t mean we all need to be the same, or that there’s only one right way of doing things. We can celebrate our differences, our uniqueness, with the higher truth that we are all on this planet together. And sharing the world means finding the compassion to honor our differences, not use them to divide us or as reasons for promoting conformity and unanimity.

  7. Julian Baggini from an article in The Independent:

    “Are we willing to help those we see in need, even though it will turn out that some of them, perhaps even a significant number, have done less to deserve our help than others? Of course, if we happen to know for a fact that someone is a nasty piece of work, we might not put ourselves at risk. But most of the time we don’t, and even if someone has a criminal record, we cannot say whether they have put all that behind them and are now living blameless lives.

    That is why neighbourliness isn’t about justice. Justice can only be dispensed when you have all the facts in front of you. When you don’t, the result of helping can sometimes be terrible unfairness, as in this case, where the more innocent man died. Being a good neighbour is about compassion, which is as warm-blooded as justice is cool-headed. Society needs both justice and compassion, a head and a heart, if it is to be civilised. We should not therefore allow stories of undeserving beneficiaries of aid put us off giving help where we see it needed, and asking questions later. Compassion, like justice, must start with a presumption of innocence, with all the risks that this entails”

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