Few things are simple in our complex world. The further I wander through life, the deeper I resonate with the Tao Te Ching when it says the name that can be named is not the true and eternal name. Language is ever an imperfect representation of our thought, and our thoughts are an ever imperfect conception of a mysterious infinite reality. Still, amid all this uncertainty many of us desire to lead a meaningful life. Devoid of any certainty in our destination, it is in the process of becoming that we must delve for meaning.
Compassion is a word that dissects my intellectual journey in life. It is a signpost marking a transition point from childhood to adulthood, though I was chronologically already a young man at the time. I started in this world, as we all must, wandering unconsciously among the infinite landscapes of potential being, imbibing knowledge and influences consciously or otherwise, trying to discover a self amongst it all that I was content with.
Each of us emerges, awakens from the void, has a brief moment experiencing the vibrations of light and energy, and then returns to the void in wakeless reunion. There are seemingly endless, potentially worthy possibilities for the brief moment our candle flickers. There are many expressions we might paint on the canvas of existence, and it was only in my early twenties that any idea of something approaching a worthy expression of life, or at least my life, began to take form. I had always been drawn to the philosophies of Asia, and after reading words attributed to the Buddha I found the connecting idea which was to underpin my future thoughts.
“May all beings be free of suffering”.
Or, in a word, compassion.
So simple, so pure. Like many resonant truths, it seemed to lay unshaped, dormant within me until given wings upon hearing its expression. To my mind, much of what I had felt was missing from people, society and technology was encompassed by compassion. Perhaps more than any other single word it answered my fundamental question of “how am I to live?”.
For some, ideas might come perfectly, fully formed. To my mind, truths usually come in scarcely intelligible whispers, and I must tease them out, give them shape and voice. This process continues indefinitely, cyclically, hopefully ever more deeply; it is going on now as I write this. This would not be the same article if I wrote it yesterday or tomorrow, but we can only perceive the world from where we are. Here I stand accepting the limitations of the moment. Compassion was simpler for me when I was younger, it was an end in itself, the great end, the obvious unfilled space in the grand human story, a simple, profound meaning, my meaning. There is still something left of my younger sureness in this idea, but my older self cannot be quite so certain. I now see a need to find an equilibrium between competing goods such as rationality, evolution, desire, imagination, pragmatism, etc, but still compassion looms above them as a more trustworthy end goal. If I err in my thoughts and judgements, I hope always to err on the side of compassion.
To be compassionate amid the countless interacting systems in our world, all infinitely complex within themselves, cannot be simple. We cannot just identify as compassionate and rest in that state. Compassion asks much more of us than that, it is indeed a challenge worthy of our higher consciousness. Sometimes the most compassionate action in the short term is not the most compassionate in the long term. There are often competing truths between which we must find some sensible path. Sometimes the ends justify the means, but ends are always more uncertain than means. Compassion is a beacon for me, that hovers above the misty clouds and rocky paths of choice we tread uncertainly, trying to find a meaningful way, without hope of ever reaching it completely. Hopefully though, as we inch closer toward the light, each hard-won step is meaningful in itself.
We do not come to the world as a blank, easily malleable canvas. We cannot often just decide to be some different version of ourselves, change must often be gradual and hard-won. Some seem to be born with compassion unassailably in their hearts, their main tasks are to find wisdom and power. Others of us are more broken, even once we comprehend the truth of compassion, we must struggle with ourselves to maintain consistent progress towards it, in a society that often tries to tempt us away. We might need to lean more on the thoughts and example of others in order to replenish our energy for this internal struggle. Still, whether realised or innate, our instinct toward compassion and ensuring our actions are compassionate are sometimes worlds apart. Instincts are often wrong. All of us, however innately pure of heart, must learn and think deeply in order to be compassionate in a complex world.
Perhaps the greatest flaw I see in religious teachings, or at least in religious hierarchies, is that they either hijacked compassion to their own ends or they see compassion as an individual journey of moral perfection. As many thoughtful people over time have pointed out, compassion is largely structural. If we wish to be an agent of compassion, to make the world more compassionate, we must look further than our own actions to reckon with power.
It is simple enough, with all society's bloodshed, competition, and inequality to imagine better ways for humans to live with each other. Throughout history, people have imagined utopias, and many have tried to realise them at different scales. The vast majority of utopian experiments failed at least partly because of a mistaken belief in the innate goodness of the human spirit, believing that if the people or systems which oppressed us were removed, our innate goodness would shine through to live together in mutually productive harmony. There is some rational basis for this way of thinking, often the most broken people are the result of a predictable social environment. Their circumstances have conspired against their flourishing; being a beautiful, compassionate person in an ugly, violent society is often dangerous. The low-hanging fruit of utopia is to stop people’s experiences encouraging them to believe that violence and deceit are the best ways they can achieve material well-being, security and status. Creating structurally more fair and equal societies would increase people’s natural propensity to make compassionate choices. This would not end crime, some of the most damaging criminals do so from places of privilege, but reducing the crimes caused by poverty and social exclusion would do much for security, cohesion and social trust. We would all share the benefits of reorienting people’s energy to be prosocial.
We are touching here on the tension between individual and society, between freedom and the collective good. We create systems to coordinate our behaviour, and are then shaped by those systems in turn; neither can completely transcend the other. No system is immune to the influence of corrupt individuals, especially amongst its elites. Similarly, few individuals would not be corrupted by a system where corruption is the simplest and most obvious choice. Bad societies create bad incentives, but even good societies have their weaknesses. A system where everybody tells the truth can be the most profitable place to tell lies: a kingdom of peace can be the ideal target for aggressive war. The individual and the system must be protected from each other, but neither is individually pure and so must also be protected from themselves. Trust is a precious commodity for a healthy society, but it requires a delicate balance; too much and it leaves itself open to abuse, too little and it becomes a descending war of all against all. Systems composed of intelligent adaptive agents like humans will always need to be intelligent and adaptive in themselves, to handle all the positive and negative possibilities of creativity and intelligence. We cannot create the perfect system, any more than we can create perfect selves. It is a dance between competing truths, an evolutionary, dialectical process, a journey among the rocky stones trying to stay focused on the beacon of compassion shining in the mist.
Compassionate societies must reckon with the potential of who we are as evolutionary products of an amoral universe. Systems of justice, that arbitrate fairly between individual freedoms, that make the universe more just and moral must be of primary importance in our thinking. Power, status, violence, selfishness, these are possibilities latent within us all, that as far as we know will always find expression through us. Even if we created a perfect society, we would soon birth a child who realises that they can push others over to get the things they want and will take this learning through life with them, they might also gather others to them. A compassionate society may mean not being compassionate or forgiving all the time, or at least having a deeper understanding of compassion than an instinctual short-term one. In the psychological diversity that is humanity, it is possible that some actors may be too broken to be reconcilable with a healthy, safe community, temporarily or permanently. We need a system of ensuring justice, but one aimed at uplifting, educating and rehabilitating people while protecting society from them, even from ourselves. The price of peace is vigilance, this is the way of the amoral universe we find ourselves within. As much as we might hope for it, there is no universal karma, no infinite justice. We are the primary moral agents in this universe, if we wish for justice we must make it. As always though, let us always err in this task on the side of compassion.
We must always return to the individual as the indivisible unit of creation in our societies. As my understanding of compassion embraced the complexity of evolution, history and our societies, I became profoundly influenced by the ideas of anarchism. Anarchism is a philosophy that seats the flourishing, creativity and liberation of each individual as the surest foundation of beautiful and intellectually rich communities. Anarchism is profoundly in agreement with our evolutionary nature as beings who seek freedom. In order to be free in a compassionate way, however, we must recognise that we are chained to each other in a shared existence. Our lives, interests and freedoms overlap, so if we do not wish to preference any one group or person’s interests above others, including our own, we must understand how can try to navigate potentially conflicting freedoms in a fair, productive and compassionate way. A philosophy of individual freedom like anarchism is not a system perfectly suited to govern large, complex societies; we probably need other collective conversations about libertarian and democratic socialism for that. Anarchism is best utilised as a personal philosophy, one which we can use to govern ourselves if we wish to live and contribute most fully to the whole. There must be individual limits in a functioning, fair society, there must be collective organisation, there is no avoiding this truth. The question is only how much we are involved and empowered in the conversation surrounding our own limits. Education, learning and communication are therefore fundamental. A free society requires individuals to be equipped with the political, moral and intellectual resources to engage in an evolving discussion about their responsibilities as citizens and freedoms as individuals.
Even if we accept that all other people have the same value as we do, it can be difficult, if not impossible to consistently act in this way. Our senses and thoughts conspire in the illusion that the world revolves around us. Self-interest is one of the most potent drugs within the human psyche; even with the best of intentions, our genetics can subvert our ideas of what is true and just. Accepting this universal flaw, our aim needs to be to contribute to systems that are greater than the collective sum of their parts, that help us to be more just and compassionate people than our biases might make us individually. We need to create transparent systems that distribute and rotate power to shield us from predictable human bias and dysfunction.
In advocating for compassion we must contend with ourselves as products of an amoral universe. We cannot pretend that all our wars and suffering were the product of some elite or controlling class, some other type of being. All humans share some part of the flaws and weaknesses of those who created the injustices of the past or the present. We cannot lose sight of how in another life, with another set of circumstances, we might have been different people. This is not to excuse destructive behaviour or to deny personal responsibility, even if forgiveness often seems the most compassionate path to take. Compassion taken too far can undermine its own end goals. Instead, we should utilise the understanding of our shared flaws to think productively about how to structure a society that gives others the best incentives for living compassionately. That gives people clear paths to attaining reasonable desires and rewards contributions to our shared well-being rather than rewarding selfishness. We should endeavour to clearly set out the obligations and duties of members of a community, which includes a duty to push against the norms of the community when they are unjust. We want individuals to be as free as possible to create, express themselves, to paint their unique work on the shared canvas of life. All of us have great things within us, contributions large or small to the flourishing of life.
The name that can be named is not the true and eternal name, the path that can be travelled is not the true and eternal path. Life in all its mysteriousness and infinite potential overflows the brim of every vessel that we try to contain it within. Words are imperfect, arbitrary labels on realities often too deep, intellectual and evolving to express. Words like beauty, truth and justice, have entire worlds of potential hidden within them. Perhaps pre-eminent amongst these words though, a word with which we can deepen the others is compassion. It speaks from the reality of our evolution as sentient social beings, beings of pleasure and pain, physical and emotional, who can have an overall positive or negative existence, who create the stories of our lives together, who are so consequential to each other.
Our highest personal flourishing will extend beyond us and become part of the flourishing of life itself. Our individual meanings should contribute in our own unique way to a kinder, more just universe, the universe we would wish to exist. We have not chosen our world, or even to be part of it, but we have some part in its making, in the experience of life for other sentient beings. In wielding the power we all have in whatever measure, compassion is perhaps our simplest and most important guide. We should return to it in our plans and aspirations, when we proceed however uncertainly, for we must live even as we figure out how to live. There are no perfect beings or truths, and compassion is not one either, but it provides guidance amid the complexities of this life.
All beings cannot be free of suffering, some suffering is perhaps necessary, but individually and collectively part of our higher meaning should be to move further towards that end. With diligence, learning, struggle, wisdom, discussion and humility we can collectively live more meaningful, positively consequential lives. If we keep compassion in mind, the universe can be a more beautiful place to exist because we had a moment in it.
Our understanding will always be limited, we will get things wrong and our flaws will undermine our best intentions. We will err, but always let us try to err on the side of compassion.