my father, the compassionate
My father has been a driving force in my life and in many of my decisions. Sometimes I was reacting against all the things, in my mind, that he stood for. Other times, I was considering what he would do if faced with a similar decision; many times I was simply hoping he was proud. He used to write me letters, send me clippings, poems, editorials, cartoons. I treasured the letters, no matter what they said. When going through drawers and other things recently, getting ready to pack, I found a stack of letters from him, which I'd forgotten about, from early days of my Ph.D. program. I relied on his encouragement and compassion. It seems as if he knew when I was having a particularly difficult week because a letter would arrive about how Nathaniel Hawthorne was once fired from his job and felt like a failure but because his wife believed in him, she'd put money aside to last for a year so he could write his book, which ended up being The Scarlet Letter.
So, everyone doubts themselves, my father would write, it's how you manage your doubt and challenges. I know that you can rise to the occasion you've been given. If you do not trust yourself, then trust me.
There are dozens of these letters meant to encourage and inspire me. And they did. This is compassion at work.
I've been thinking about compassion ever since Dian challenged us. I've been thinking about it because I feel a deep need to pledge myself to compassion because it is not something that I practice enough, for myself or others. In my understanding, compassion is simply not wanting others to suffer. But putting compassion into practice is something different altogether. In my readings both on Christianity and Buddhism, I'm beginning to see that compassion is not a state a mind but an act of recognition, deeper than sympathy or empathy (though I believe along the same lines). Compassion sees all living beings as worthy of happiness. It is not earned or rewarded. The Dalai Lama has said the following about practicing compassion:
I find that whenever I meet new people and have this positive disposition, there is no barrier between us. No matter who or what they are, whether they have blonde hair or black hair, or hair that is dyed green, I feel that I am simply encountering a fellow human being with the same desire to be happy and to avoid suffering as myself. And I find that I can speak to them as if they were old friends, even at our first meeting. By keeping in mind that ultimately, we are all brother and sisters, that there is no substantial difference between us, that all others share my desire to be happy and to avoid suffering, I can express my feelings as readily as to someone I have known intimately for years. And not just with a few nice words or gestures, but really heart to heart, no matter what the language barrier.
My father's job is compassion. As I get older, I am blown away by both his intellectual and emotional capacity, which far exceed my own understanding. I see that my desire for deep understanding of the world comes from his curious nature and his emotional longing. As a minister, my father is constantly pouring out emotional support. It is difficult for him to find respite for his own mind and heart. I was suggesting movies that Mom should add to her Netflix Queue and he said, "Dev, every single movie you've suggested sounds wrenching. They all start with tragedy, usually someone dying. I deal with death and sadness and tragedy on a constant basis; I want an escape from that somewhere."
I nodded though I cannot fully understand. I am not responsible for others' grief or joy, for their spiritual health.
I have watched portrayals of preachers in TV and movies and what they rarely show is how work is never done, how drained it leaves one. My father never had a punch card or a way to clock out. I remember the phone ringing throughout the night closely followed by the car leaving the driveway. Before we planned trips, I would ask God not to let anyone die so that we could go on vacation. I attended countless weddings and funerals and sat in various hospital waiting rooms as my father worked. It is difficult to explain to others exactly what your father does when he is a preacher. It is difficult for anyone to truly understand the lines of vulnerability and distance that he constantly resides within, including me. I often struggled to reconcile the man in the pulpit with the man in our house, who had time, energy, emotional heft for everyone else but his family. I grew up in awe of my father, of his knowledge, and depth of character. I placed him in my mind and in fiction on a pedestal. There are versions of my father I have from childhood, each of them as likely to be false as they are true.
What I do know is that he truly cares about people. He enjoys conversations about people's lives, about what they will name their children, about what they want to pursue, about their hopes and dreams. He meets no strangers and yet has had the same core group of friends since seminary. My father is complicated and complex; all the best people are.
Ultimately, he is a man of stories.
I am his daughter in some of the worst ways and I hope some of the best. I want the best to include compassion. Thus, in a pledge to compassion, I will try to recognize my capacity for care. I think Pema Chodron describes this perfectly when she says:
When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.
What would happen if I believed and tried to practice this daily? If I seek to live heart to heart with others? If I recognize suffering of all living beings as my own suffering? If I followed my father's example?
In his sermon yesterday, he said that compassion is not a human instinct. When someone cuts you off in traffic, your first thought isn't about their suffering or difficulties. But what if it was?