To be truly compassionate you need to be kind to yourself

by Mark Vernon

Compassion is like happiness. Obviously a great good. And yet, I think it is also like happiness in another way. Its realisation is far more tricky than perhaps first meets the eye. A number of thoughts came to mind as I tried to think it through.

Take the business of practising compassion. One can clearly will oneself to do a kindness here, offer a comforting word there. A fraction of the world would be a better place for it. But a concern came to my mind that reaching out might become like the injunction to eat five pieces of fruit ‘n’ veg a day. It becomes a burden, one that you chastise yourself for not fulfilling. Your efforts to show compassion to others become a regular reprimand to yourself.

There is also the danger of tokenism. One act of compassion is used, perhaps unconsciously, to alleviate the guilt of the many quietly abusive acts that can fill an average working day. Or, do I visit my uncle in the care home because I care for him or because I feel secret remorse for his being there in the first place?

This is all counterproductive, if you follow Gandhi’s line of thought that you must be the change that you want to see in the world. So I have the sense that being compassionate towards others requires being compassionate towards yourself too: serious intent, light touch.

To develop the thought further, you might say that the aficionados of compassion possess a certain freedom with themselves. I think this is shown in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road from the man who has been beaten by robbers, though there is no suggestion in the story that they are not compassionate people. Rather, they are constrained by their fear of a half-dead man. And who can blame them? A half-dead toddler, Wang Yue, was recently passed by on the streets of Guangdong by over a dozen people, provoking a moral crisis in China and concern around the world. What the Good Samaritan had was an inner freedom that trumped any fear. He wasn’t tied by convention, or fright, or lack of time. He was free to respond to another human being. Am I that free?

The risks associated with being kind are, in fact, multiple. Will an unexpected act be unwelcome or aggressive? Might it be thought an intrusion or demeaning? Can you judge accurately whether it’s appropriate? Am I free enough to take these risks? Also, there’s an art to receiving acts of compassion: you mustn’t read too much into a warm smile or the squeeze of a hand!

There are interesting parallels between these concerns and the research on empathy. Empathy too is often taken to be an unalloyed good thing. And yet, as Colin Frith, emeritus professor at UCL, recently told me, an empathic feeling might as easily lead to an unkind response of fight or flight as a good response of compassion. Feeling viscerally upset by someone else’s pain might make you turn your back. Alternatively, collective empathy with my in-group can lead to collective animosity towards those perceived as others. Such empathy powers war. The risk is that my compassion for some leads to self-righteous anger at others.

All that said, compassion has to start somewhere. And to a certain extent it seems possible to train oneself by attempting to form habits of reaching out. Perhaps the best advice is to aim high but start small. For it seems to me that compassion is really aimed at something big and difficult – nothing less than a transformation of your life and yourself. A good question to ask is whether you really want that to happen.

A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless

A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless

By Leo Babauta

We don’t like to think that our way of living is wrong, that our beliefs are untrue, that we participate in cruelty or injustice.

We want to think of ourselves as good people.

I know because I reacted with anger and defensiveness the first time I heard criticisms of the sweatshop clothing I owned, of the consumerism I participated in, of the sexism and homophobic culture I’d grown up in. I know because I ridiculed vegetarians and vegans when I first heard about their ridiculous abstaining from meat and animal products.

And yet, we can be good people … and close our eyes to wrongdoing.

This is when those who see the wrongdoing have a duty: to speak up, and call for conscience, and call for change. And call for compassion.

Today I am calling for compassion for animals: defenseless, suffering, feeling animals.

Our Food System

I grew up in the modern world, with food brought to me already prepared, ready to eat. Microwave dinners, chicken nuggets, cans of chips, packs of beef jerky and candy: it was all the same to me. It was just Food.

I knew nothing of where that food came from. If I ever thought of animals, it was animals on peaceful farms, living happy lives. But mostly I just thought of the food, the delicious, nourishing, yummy food. It wasn’t living beings, just food.

Of course, if we really open our eyes, these are fellow sentient, feeling beings that we’re eating. And they’re not happy or peaceful: they’re suffering, in mass factories of hormone injections, daily beatings, lives of living hell, and murder.

We rightly feel compassion when humans are subjected to mass murder and genocide, under the Nazis and Pol Pot, of the Kurds, in Rwanda, and other incidences of horrible suffering and injustice. And yet, we participate in the mass torture and murder of other beings, simply for our pleasure.

And sure, I will concede that human and animal lives are not equal. But that doesn’t mean they are worthless or unworthy of our compassion. It doesn’t mean we can treat them like unfeeling objects.

Many people reading this love animals — you love dogs, or cats, or bunnies, or dolphins. You would never whip a dog. You would never slash the throat of your pets after giving them a thorough beating. You feel their suffering and believe them to be worthy of your compassion.

And yet, we ignore the extreme suffering of animals. Done for us. For our pleasure.

No Justification

I am convinced that there is no justification for the torture and murder of the animals we raise for our food.

I’d probably kill an animal in self-defense, or to save my children, or to save other human lives. But we’re not talking about the choice between killing humans or killing animals.

We’re talking about the choice between killing animals, and not killing them.

There is no justification for killing these animals. A few reasons commonly given in justification:

  • Health: Some people believe that eating meat/chicken/fish or dairy/eggs is necessary for health. This is demonstrably false: vegans are (on average) healthier than non-vegans. Sure, they might have to pay special attention to a few vitamins (B12, for example), but that’s actually really easy and not a worry. I have been vegetarian/vegan for years, and I am healthier than I’ve ever been, and regularly check out as extremely healthy on all tests. I’m only one case, but there’s a large body of scientific literature on the great health of vegans (with exceptions, of course — not everyone pays attention to their health, and some people follow crazy vegan diets like fruitarianism, etc.). But anyway, it’s entirely possible, and not very difficult, to be healthy on a vegan diet. It’s possible to be healthy on a non-vegan diet, but my point is that you can be healthy either way — so animal products aren’t required for health.
  • It’s natural. Many people use this as justification — it’s natural for us to kill animals, it’s in our nature. And while historically this was probably true, that early humans killed and ate animals, it certainly wasn’t to the extent that we kill and eat animals today. The way we raise meat and the rate at which we kill it is certainly not “natural”. And what people think our ancestors ate is generally wrong. And as I said above, today many people eat a vegan diet and are shown to be very healthy, so what is “natural” does not equal what is healthy.
  • The animals couldn’t live without our help. This is another argument I’ve heard — that if we stopped eating animals, they wouldn’t be able to survive without us. This is incredible to me, that we could use our making food animals helpless as justification for continuing to kill them, as if we’re killing them for their own good. By the way, this argument (that animals wouldn’t survive without our help) is the same argument that was used to justify slavery and continuing to oppress women.
  • Can’t give up meat. Lots of people think they can’t give up meat (or cheese, or whatever). This is also false. They obviously don’t want to give up meat, which is understandable, but it’s not true that you can’t give up meat. Lots of people have done it, happily, even when they thought they couldn’t. There are ex-vegans who got less healthy on a vegan diet, but that’s usually because they don’t understand how to ensure that they get enough B12 or iron or protein. Honestly, it’s not hard. The best source for this is Vegan Health.
  • Everyone else does it. Being in a society where everyone else participates in a system … you might feel it’s easier to go along with the system. And that’s definitely true. But easy shouldn’t justify a horrible system, should it? Should we go with everyone else if they’re killing innocent beings, just because it’s easier? Should we shut our eyes because it’s too unpleasant to hear about what happens to the animals we eat? Should we not do what’s right, just because our friends and family wouldn’t understand? I definitely live a life that’s at odds with my friends and family, and they often don’t understand. I still do it, because I believe it’s the compassionate thing to do. And I’m not better than you, just willing to listen to what’s happening.
  • Raise animals in ethical way. Other people want to be compassionate but still eat meat, so they buy grass-fed or free-range meat. Unfortunately, it’s a fairy tale. There is no such thing as happy meat. But in any case, eating compassionate meat is not a justification for it — you’re eating it because you enjoy eating it, not because you need to.
  • Eggs & dairy OK. Vegetarians often will eat eggs & dairy, because those don’t require killing animals to produce. But actually, they do require killing those animals. Most people don’t understand the suffering & killing that occurs in the egg & dairy industries. Read more here and here, to start with.

What it boils down to is this: the only reason to eat meat or other animal products is because you like it. For your pleasure. And to me, killing for pleasure is not justified.

This is not an indictment of you as a person. You’re a good person, as am I. It’s an indictment of the food system we grew up in.

A Call for Change

It’s possible to change the system.

We can try veganism. It’s not hard, it’s actually enjoyable once you get used to it, and it can be very healthy.

You can join me in feeling compassion for our fellow sentient beings. Don’t close your eyes. Don’t act out of defensiveness. Don’t participate in mass torture and murder.

Withdraw from the horrors of the current food system, advocate for a plant diet, push for change.

Now that you’re awake to the suffering of animals, you too have a duty to help others see what’s happening. Desperate situations call for those who are aware to speak up, or they are complicit in the deed.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away
~Percy Bysshe Shelley