“There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.”
— from the Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Being a member of an oppressed group in this day and age is no longer as isolating or unique an experience as it once was. Today when we look around we are able to see just how much everyone is suffering. The heterosexual, middle class, white American male claims his immobilizing pain just like our Third World Arab lesbian sister or our black, inner city gang member on the down-low brother. Just like me. Just like you. Sometimes the sheer weight and diversity of everyone’s suffering seems too much to handle. How can we possibly deal with others, suffering all when our own is so acute, so present, so impossible? Why should we even care about the suffering of bigots and oppressors? What/s the right thing to do?
If we are able to perceive or conceive of the intense, submerged iceberg of suffering that every other person on Earth experiences, we must acknowledge that since we share something as primal as pain, we are like them as well. Just like us, nobody wants to suffer. On the contrary, all of us want to be happy and avoid suffering. If suffering is a primal experience, the desire to be free from it is the primal drive.
Because everyone acts in order to achieve happiness and avoid suffering we are taught that every attack is really a call for love. From the smallest barb thrown behind my boss, back to the quartet of planes that altered the course of history one year ago, every form of attack is really a call for love.
The important question for us to ask ourselves when we attack others is, with apologies to Oprah’s Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” Is attacking reducing your suffering? Do you feel better now? And the inevitable answer is “No.” Attacking makes us feel worse. It makes us feel more fearful, threatened and paranoid, and leaves us feeling guilty and unsatisfied.
The alternative to acting out with attack is to manifest the genuine desire, the underlying compulsion to achieve happiness and reduce our suffering. We have to be honest with ourselves about what we really want. We have to consider the end goal we desire and avoid taking action that may end up hurting our chances of achieving it. Instead, we have to train ourselves to only take actions that are congruous with the end we desire. Since every urge to attack arises from a desire for love, love is what we really, deeply want, and so our actions must conform to the spirit of love if we’re going to get what we want.
This is particularly true for lesbian, gay, bi-affectionate and transgender people because it is so easy for us to become prisoners of our pain. Now is the time for LGBT people to rise above the evil that is and has been done to us and to begin creating the end we desire. This means training ourselves to conduct our activism with love and compassion instead of attack, in effect, giving up the very idea of “enemy.” We must act in the name and spirit of our deepest desires, not out of our pain, and when we meet attack with love, we will see attack revealed as secret wound. Wounds can only be treated when they’re visible. Wounds can only be healed when they are exposed to the light.
LGBT people can be, and must be, healers even though we are wounded ourselves. When we act in order to achieve happiness and avoid or relieve suffering, we necessarily act out of some level of concern for the wellbeing of self and others. This kind of action is fundamentally loving, but is based upon compassion first. We can be compassionate with ourselves by applying the gentle corrective of observation to our behavior, which helps us love instead of attack, and by recognizing the calls for love hidden in our own negative history and forgiving ourselves.
On the other hand, compassion literally means “suffer-together,” so to only offer compassion to oneself misses the point. The experience of empathy for and identification with another person who, just like us, wants to be happy and free from suffering, motivates us to act out of a will to nurture, protect and relieve instead of a will to attack, dominate or punish.
At the same time, we are not required to suffer in the act of giving love. Compassion does not demand that we take others’ pain onto ourselves. Frequently inspired on some level by a mythology of sainthood — for example, a traditional reading of the biblical story of Jesus, crucifixion that emphasizes Jesus taking all the sins and suffering of the world upon himself — self-martyrdom is common but is in fact a kind of violence against the self. Such sacrifice is unnecessary. We must always remember to treat ourselves with love, as well!
The obvious enemy of compassion is cruelty, but compassion also has a subtle enemy: pity. The distinction between pity and compassion is important because “if someone pours her heart out to us and we pity her, then two people are suffering instead of one,” as Ayya Khema writes in Visible Here and Now. If we want to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, adding to our own suffering can hardly help!
Genuine compassion is not motivated by pity, but by empathy and identification with others, desires to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. Genuine compassion is independent of emotional attachment based on projection and expectation. We do not act with expectation of a particular result. We do not feel genuine compassion for someone because we project our desires, opinions or impulses onto them. Indeed, such projection is one root of the ills striking the LGBT community — our adversaries are too busy attacking their idea of us to interact with us as we really are.
When we act because we recognize that, like us, someone else deeply wants to achieve happiness and avoid suffering, when we answer another’s call for love, when we act with a will to nurture, we act with genuine compassion. Such compassion arises from love, and such love from genuine compassion.
Love and compassion are not ephemeral concepts, but active and powerful levers that will enable meaningful social change. The old claim that “if you give me a big enough lever I can move the world,” is a clumsy truism. It is truer for us to say that if enough people use enough small levers, the planet will shift. Love and compassion are small levers with enormous impacts. Not only our tools for the positive transformation of self and society, love and compassion are exemplars of a global paradigm shift toward integration and communion, a shift we LGBT people can lead if each of us puts on the Shirt of Flame.