Someone I know asked a really tough question the other day. They were angry about someone who had hurt a child being allowed access to tv, computers and learning while in jail. The comment was something along the lines of ‘how do they deserve that?’.
The story was disturbing, but the question she asked remained in my head for a long time. She mentioned that she tries to have compassion for others in her daily life but can’t see how or why she ought to have any for someone who willfully hurts children. She really just wanted them to feel the pain that they had inflicted.
That’s a tough one. I had to take some time to think about that because I too struggled with the idea about whether ‘bad’ people deserve our compassion.
This is what I have come to realize.
There is a difference between an expectation of justice and one of compassion. At first, I thought perhaps I ought to feel compassion for a soul who is so twisted and tormented as to think harming a child (or any living creature for that matter) is okay. I imagine that most of these people are mentally ill, or have been abused themselves. What their life has brought them that led up to a horrible act might be worth my compassion.
But I have trouble there, as the majority of people who do bad things know they are doing harm and do it anyway. It doesn’t resolve my issues for those who steal or destroy or even discriminate. Those too are pretty awful crimes but do not always come from a mentally ill person.
So while we might start there…we must look deeper I think.
What is compassion really? It is defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. It should come from a place of love. How do you love a person like this though? You do so, simply because they are a creature on this earth as are we all. Should we deny them their humanity because of the way their life turned out?
Consider if this was your child. Would you stop loving them? Of course not. Love doesn’t work that way. You may not like them or their choices, you may even choose to remove them from your life but you never truly stop caring.
When someone does us – or someone we care for – wrong we have an emotional reaction that can be explosive. We want to punish and extract vengeance. We feel quite justified in this emotion and it is only natural I think. Compassion is what drives us to believe people can change and be rehabilitated.
Never has it been expected that having compassion for all creatures also means approval for all their actions. This idea of compassion does not supersede the idea of justice. It doesn’t mean allowing someone who is dangerous to wander the world either. But it means whomever is meting out this justice does so with a mindset that is able to see that everyone is suffering in their own way. Compassion ought to be the companion of justice.
When we fail to see the human being behind someone committing violence, then we add to the violence ourselves. Perhaps compassion, like forgiveness, is really more for us than for the perpetrator? We show compassion, not because others are or are not compassionate, but because we are a loving and compassionate person…period.
Is it easy to cultivate a compassionate mind for those who we see as ‘evil’? No, it really isn’t. But it is important to realize that compassion is an understanding of what it means to be an imperfect, flawed human being.
I’m still working this through in my mind and I’d love to hear your respectful thoughts on this.