This post first appeared on Positively Present website.
Two new books — Compassion and Forgiveness — from my Effortless Inspiration series debut tomorrow, and their release couldn’t come at a better time. Whether you’re into politics or not, you’ve probably witnessed the craziness surrounding the American presidential election this year. People on both sides are filled with anger and frustration and determination, and, while they have every right to feel as they want to feel and hold tight to the views they value, we could all stand for a bit more forgiveness and compassion in this race to the White House.
In particular, compassion (aka, the sympathetic awareness of others’ distress paired with a desire to alleviate that pain) deserves a more prominent place in the rhetoric of this tumultuous time. When we feel passionately about our political stances (as so many of us do!), it can be a challenge to cultivate compassion. Political views quickly become personal, and our individual ideas and desires may make it tough to empathize with, and want to alleviate the pain of, those with opposing points of view. This, coupled with the others’ hostility, anger, or even bullying, often pushes compassion to the back burner of our minds (and of the national political conversation).
Compassion means having empathy for, and a desire to help, someone who is in pain — something most of have no trouble doing when witnessing a physical manifestation of pain we can label and understand. We have compassion when we see an overtired child throwing a tantrum, a legless veteran wheeling by with a service dog, a homeless mother asking for change on the street, or a heart-breaking image of children living in war-torn countries. But when someone’s pain is invisible (or manifesting itself only in words), it can be much harder to access empathy and a desire to help, and gaining access to that compassion becomes even more challenging when another’s beliefs differ sharply from our own or support ideas we believe are fundamentally wrong.
But compassion isn’t defined as empathizing with and wanting to help those in pain who share your views. Compassion is about recognizing another’s pain and desiring to alleviate it in some way, regardless of whether or not you agree with that person’s beliefs. And, if you pay close attention to how people speak and act during the election (both the politicians and the citizens), you’ll see that a lot of people are actually in a lot of pain. Why, instead of striving to alleviating this very obvious pain as we would if it were manifested physically, do so many of us seek instead to tear others down, to combat others with their own opinions rather than seeking to empathize in some way?
It’s hard to be compassionate when we feel so strongly (as we should!) about the outcome of something like this upcoming election. Politics are important, and because the winner of the election can have a big impact on our lives, it’s no wonder so many of us get personally and intensely invested in our beliefs. This is a good thing, that people care so much. Knowing what you believe in and having the freedom to defend your beliefs is one of the things that makes America so amazing. But defending what you believe in and having compassion for others who think differently are not mutually exclusive. You can be passionate and compassionate.
That idea isn’t a novel one, but it sure doesn’t seem to be represented very much in today’s American political culture. When it comes to the word “compassion” in politics, it’s mostly used to describe how candidates feel about the impoverished, ill, or mistreated. It’s rarely, if ever, used (in a non-sarcastic way) to refer to those with opposing opinions. Attack ads, personal attacks during debates, and negative, hateful language perpetuated by strong-minded, vocal citizens who want nothing to do with those with opposing views are powerful — and popular. Citizens have every right to share their views and opinions, but is it a requirement that they be shared without a single ounce of compassion for another’s perspective in order to be valid?
Here’s what I think: I think we need more compassion for one another. I get why people attack each other (it’s been proven to be effective in advertisements and, if we’re honest, it’s so much easier to judge others instead of focusing on our own — or our preferred candidate’s — flaws), but imagine what it would be like if campaigns weren’t designed to hurt and shame others? What if, instead, we used our words and logic to dismantle others’ arguments, rather than adding to the pain they’re likely to be experiencing? (Because, let’s face it — being a human is pretty hard for all of us.)
Compassion for those you dislike or disagree with is arduous, but the rewards for putting in the work are incredibly worthwhile. Not only does compassion make arguments and political discussions more pleasant for others, but you also gain a lot of love, kindness, and respect for yourself when you chose compassion over indifference or meanness. Additionally, I’ve found that compassion generally makes relationships, interactions, and life as a whole more enjoyable. Here are some ways to cultivate compassion with those around you (regardless of their political beliefs) in this intense environment:
- Amend your attitude to the opposition.
The first step for creating compassion in any situation is being open to compassionate thoughts. If you’re automatically thinking, I could never discuss politics with someone voting for Trump! or If that person is on Clinton’s side, I can’t even begin to relate!, you’re already starting off with a lack of empathy and understanding. Yes, you might have completely different views from someone else and be very certain about where you stand on certain issues, but that doesn’t mean you have to go into an interaction with a closed mind. (Also: keep in mind that not everything has to be black-or-white; more than you might think falls into gray areas when you keep your mind open.) Being open to having compassion for others (especially for those you disagree with) is absolutely necessary for cultivating compassion.
- Debate (and think!) with kindness.
Once you have an open-minded, compassion-focused attitude in place, the next essential tip for compassion is thinking and speaking with kindness and understanding. Depending on how passionate you are about a topic (and your personality), this can be a challenge sometimes, but practice really does help. Before you speak, pause for a moment and use the questions from the THINK concept: Is it TRUE? is it HELPFUL? Is it INSPIRING? Is it NECESSARY? Is it KIND? Imagine if every politician and vocal citizen considered those things before speaking / tweeting / etc.! Keep in mind that kindness is not weakness. You can make powerful, provocative arguments while still being compassionate and considerate of others.
- Campaign for common ground.
You’re not going to agree on everything with most people, but don’t write off the power of common ground. At the most basic level, you’re both humans and should treat each other as such. Just because you have differing political, moral, or ethical beliefs doesn’t mean that, at the heart of things, you’re not really aiming for the same life goal: to enjoy a happy, well-lived life for yourself and those you care about in an environment in which you feel valued, safe, and empowered. Envision, for a moment, what the current campaign would be like if Clinton and Trump focused on things they had in common. Doing so wouldn’t mean that they didn’t have (or couldn’t openly discuss) differences, but it would bring to their campaigns a humanity that currently seems to be lacking.
- Fact-check your assumptions.
One of the greatest roadblocks for experiencing compassion is making assumptions about others. Most of the time when we see someone who is hurting, we feel empathy and, as a result of that empathy, we often want to help them. What typically stands in the way of either of these steps (empathizing and helping) is assuming that (a) they don’t need help or (b) they don’t want help. When you find it difficult to cultivate compassion for someone, ask yourself why. What is it about this person that causes you to feel or think a certain way? What assumptions might you be making without checking if they are absolute fact? Even if you don’t ultimately reject your assumptions, it’s important to take note of them and assess whether they are, in fact, valid. (PS: don’t beat yourself up for having assumptions; it’s human nature to do so, but a truly evolved, intelligent human knows to look for and assess the validity of those assumptions.)
- Lobby for (and treat others with) respect.
Compassion for others also encompasses compassion for yourself. Whether you’re involved in a heated political debate or simply engaged in an everyday interaction, it’s essential to make sure others respect you. And, just as importantly, to make sure you’re respecting others. When things get particularly intense (especially in politics!), respectfulness can be thrown out the window. This, as I’m sure you’ve seen, never leads to anything positive and it doesn’t have to be this way. As with kindness, it’s important to remember that you can have a completely different point of view (and argue it) without being disrespectful to someone else. Treating others with respect (and asking that they do the same in return) is an essential aspect of compassionate interaction, and one that often gets ignored when it comes to heated debates. For so long respect for the opposition hasn’t been a part of politics so it almost seems as if you have to treat the opposition with distain or disregard, but those two things are not essential for intelligent, thought-provoking conversations.
- Pledge to focus on forgiveness.
Unless you’re some kind of amazing miracle superhuman, you’ve probably made a mistake or two in your life. We all make mistakes. Obviously some mistakes are made on a much grander, and more impactful, level than others, but consider what might happen if you forgave the mistakes of others (even the really gigantic ones committed by politicians). Forgiving another’s mistake doesn’t mean you condone or accept that behavior; instead, it sets you free from clinging to hate, resentment, and anger (things that can definitely get in the way of you making valid, logical arguments for your beliefs). Forgiveness isn’t about setting others free from blame; it’s about freeing yourself from painful emotions. Allowing yourself this freedom will make it much easier to cultivate compassion for those you feel have wronged you (or your country), and will allow you to be more clearheaded and logical when discussing the wrongdoing with others.
- Veto all acts of hate and bullying.
Along with choosing to focus on kindness and respect, it’s also important to reject hate and bullying (for compassion and for life in general). Spend a few minutes on Twitter and you’ll have a hard time finding strong political commentary that doesn’t, in some way, come from a negative place. Perhaps it’s always been this way, but it seems like people spend way more time hating the opposing side than they do loving their own side. If you’re trying to make an intelligent argument, you’re never going to convince people with hate speech or by bullying them into believing your ideas. Compassionate interactions — even among people with completely different views — never, ever include malice or mean-spirited manipulation. It’s cliche but true: two wrongs don’t make a right. Even if someone else being hateful, you’ll have a hard time experiencing compassion for that person if you fight hate with hate.
- Elect to expand your perspective.
A narrow viewpoint is one that quickly gets in the way of compassion. If you’re struggling to have compassion for one of the presidential candidates, for example, it’s often because you’re focusing on what s/he is saying or doing right now. To cultivate more compassion, try taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. When someone says or does something that conflicts with your worldview, instead of immediately getting angry or defensive, pause and ask yourself why s/he might have done that. The question why should be asked a lot more often; it helps us uncover things about people, ourselves, and the world around us that we might not have considered before. When you encounter an idea or action that seems crazy to you, ask yourself, Why might that person feel that way, have that point of view, or made that choice? You might not always arrive at an answer, but you’ll find it easier to channel compassion. (If you struggle with this step, I highly recommend checking out the movie 13TH. It’s an amazing film and is a perfect example of why looking at the big picture is so essential.)
Compassion, wonderful as it is, requires hard work sometimes. When you’re struggling with it, know that you’re not alone, and try to remember, above all else, that we’re all in this together. Regardless of who wins this presidential election, we’re all here on this same planet trying, as best we can, to make the most of our lives. You may never fully understand another’s point of view, choices, or voting preference, but that does not mean you cannot have compassion for him or her. If you find it especially hard, just for today, try your absolute hardest to imagine what it might be to have a belief completely different from your own and envision the world from someone else’s perspective.
Looking to be inspired to cultivate more compassion and forgiveness in your life? Check out the two new books in the Effortless Inspiration series below!
Compassion is the ability to feel sympathetic towards those who are suffering while desiring to relieve their pain. Imagine what the world would be like if we all experienced compassion on a daily basis!
Recent scientific research has shown that compassionate people tend to be more understanding, less angry, and less stressed than other people, with stronger relationships and even enhanced immune systems. People who live with compassion or show concern for others’ wellbeing also tend to create a more harmonious atmosphere around them. Compassion breeds compassion, leading to more contentment.
To forgive is to be free. Forgiveness is one of life’s great challenges; it is so difficult to let go of anger and pain once you’ve been hurt. But people who forgive both themselves and others tend to feel more relaxed and open, have less risk of getting stressed or depressed, and experience stronger relationships.
Holding on to past resentments and negative energy tends to cause painful memories to fester in our subconscious, which prevents us from moving forward with joy in life. Learning forgiveness allows us to move on, to create more peace in our lives, and to release ourselves from re-experiencing painful moments.