Compassion Versus Cruelty
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that we all have the seeds of compassion and the seeds of cruelty within us. We aren’t born kind or cruel but rather have natural proclivities towards both ways of being. What matters is which seeds we choose to water, or in psychological terms what matters is where we put the balance of our psychic energy. When we frequently water the seeds of cruelty those seeds grow and thrive, leaving little room for other types of plants in our gardens. When we frequently water the seeds of compassion those seeds grow and thrive, leaving little room for other types of plants in our gardens.
But as much as we obsess over individualism in the West, as much as we like to think of ourselves as freethinking, rational, separate entities in charge of our own unique destinies, we are products of our environments and societal conditions tend to pull out the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors necessary to support and strengthen those societal conditions. When we go against the grain, when we swim against the current, when we start thinking, feeling, or acting in ways that contrast sharply with given norms and values we risk being ostracized, we risk being cut off from our fellows.
But most of this occurs unconsciously anyway. At bottom most people don’t question the specific conditions of their existence but rather take those conditions to be self-evident, to be indicative of the way things are and should be in the world. We can think of all human conquest as the incessant psychological need to force the boundaries of narcissism outwards so that more and more of the external world aligns with the inner subjective experience, which validates that subjective experience as true and real, as it were.
Our point here is that in general, although there are always many individual exceptions of course, a culture in which compassion is ‘in the air’ will produce more compassionate people, it will pull out compassionate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, even from those who were headed down the path of cruelty. And a culture in which cruelty is ‘in the air’ will produce more cruel people, it will pull out cruel thoughts, feeling, and behaviors, even from those who were headed down the path of compassion. We can almost think of the cultural milieu as a giant gardener who stands above the masses and waters certain chosen plants while weeding out others.
All we need do to confirm the above is look at the rise of hatred and cruelty in our own times, look at the increasing meanness, vulgarity, and divisiveness, and ponder how this change is affecting the state of our own psyches. For most of us the slow but steady effect is increased callousness, it’s the inability to generate compassion for those we see as the perpetrators of injustice. It’s secret fantasies of wrongdoers getting what’s coming to them. It’s a whole lot more hostility and anger to carry around with us than if environmental conditions were focused on peace, inclusion, brotherhood and sisterhood. And this hostility and anger takes a tremendous toll on our own psyches, on the health of our relationships, on our chosen projects, on how we are in the world.
What this all comes down to is that if we’re interested in being our best Selves we’ve got to take charge of our own gardens. This is especially true when societal conditions are less than ideal since we don’t receive the unconscious assist from the giant gardner and are in fact unconsciously compelled to move precisely in the other direction, towards becoming a part of and in fact supporting cruel conditions by adding our own cruel thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the mix. We can’t fight cruelty with cruelty just like we can’t fight fire with fire. ‘Sometimes you’ve got to fight fire with fire’ is one of the most misguided sayings ever. We all know adding more fire to a fire only increases the strength and power of that fire. We fight cruelty with compassion, just like we fight fire with water. And we can’t be our best Selves when we allow ourselves to sink down to the depths of cruelty and meanness that our adversaries use as weapons. Be aware of and call out that cruelty and meanness? Yes. But meet it with cruelty and meanness? Not if we want to protect our own mental health and well-being, not if we want to protect the sanctity of our own destinies, and not if we want a more compassionate world.