Eva had no money but needed a reading. She had contacted my godmother because she had heard that our spiritual house would not charge. It was true, and my godmother asked me to come along on the visit. Eva lived near Bartow, Florida in a house made of wood that had started to rot; so much so that the toilet had partially caved into the floor. She had converted a thrift store bedside commode and a large plastic bucket into a substitute one. She diligently cleaned it. Rain had taken most of one bedroom, and while the floors were stable she said she didn’t like the way they creaked. Eva lived in a narrow and spotless stretch of her home that included her kitchen.
After her reading, she brought out a feast: sandwiches with serrano ham, chunks of manchego cheese, olives, salads, and turrónes of almond nougat and marzipan. This was stuff hard to come by in the 1980s. While Eva put out her meal, I whispered to my godmother, “I can’t eat this. It costs too much. She needs the food.” My godmother answered, “You will have seconds.”
Crowned Yemaya, my godmother ripped through my intended sympathy to expose my discomfort with Eva’s generosity as well as her poverty. On the way back home, I got some schoolin’: “What you thought was compassion by leaving the food, denied her the chance to show her gratitude. Appreciating her hospitality was her demonstration of compassion. You focused on the cost of the food; she focused on the happiness it could bring.” I suck.Compassion can be tricky business.The paths aren’t always clear, and it gets confused with other emotions, intents as well, and that stuff in our head about why to act. Compassion is not sympathy, and it’s not empathy. Sympathy leads to rapport, empathy to understanding, but compassion leads to transformation. While empathy is painful, compassion is resilient.
I seldom read discourses about compassion in Paganism. To be sure it’s an uncommon conversation; even the word is rare across the firmament of the Pagan interweb. I did a few site searches inside the web locations of Pagan organizations to explore their dialogues on compassion, but focusing only on the presence of the word.
One organization used it extensively: 400+ times on its website. But a careful look revealed the word’s use is exclusively in the context extending non-paying membership to individuals in need of financial assistance. Another organization used the term consistently across its web site, but rarely as an aspirational quality. It is used more commonly as an explanation of a deity’s characteristics, and then only about a dozen times.
The site counts from my searches went from 400+ to 25 to 14 to zero to zero to zero to zero, and that was the most common count for the word, zero times. Zero.
Despite that finding, I would passionately argue that there’s no dearth of demonstrable acts of compassion in our community. We routinely show the power of compassion in resisting social injustices and oppression. We demand dignity and honor for the voiceless. We demonstrate our compassion for those surviving the impact of climate change. We show our compassion for future generations as we resist our kin who are erasing cultures, natural vistas, and even species, and we show compassion to the Earth, herself, in that we share in her suffering of the extinction of countless offspring.
Nevertheless, I wonder why many Pagans do so little talking about compassion. While I’m not sure we accommodate compassion in our theologies the same way other spiritual paths claim, I’m equally not sure it enters our community dialogue enough. In the rare conversation about compassion on Pagan and polytheist web sites, I’ve seen a range of comments on the topic from its having no theological basis in Paganism to its centrality. I’ve even come across dialogues where compassion is framed as a sign of weakness, and one’s obligation to take offense at its expression. Among the rarity of those conversations that do focus on compassion, the shunning of it was an all-too-common theme. This hints of a patriarchal conformity that endorses an assault on compassionate behavior that is neither decent nor grounded in evidence.
Psychological science has actually looked at how compassion fortifies us as individuals and groups. The expression of compassion makes us happy. It also reduces stress and reduces feelings of loneliness. Compassion is contagious, creating mood improvements in ourselves and others. It’s a defense against depression, isolation, and helplessness. Compassion threads society together by revealing how we can support each other.*
But the science is not what’s central here: it’s the lack of dialogue. Many Pagans — individuals and organizations — seem to demur on the subject of compassion in favor of other conversations and the exploration of other paths like the warrior. We appear more comfortable proclaiming our dangerous side. Remember those searches I did in Pagan organizations, repeat them with the word “warrior” and the search will hemorrhage hits. Despite the force and accomplishments of compassionate action and the science in its favor, many of us still embrace the warrior archetype as the essential aggressive force for changing the world. Even though it pales against compassionate action.
It’s easy to prefer that archetype. It’s powerful and emboldening. The world is replete with aphorisms of strength and endurance. And, nature — at least on the surface — is not the best guide for exploring compassion. The wild is ruthless, based on winning and survival. As the African saying goes, the story of the lion and the zebra is told by the lion.
Yet compassion may be responsible for the survival — even the evolution — of our species. Its expression in human evolution is likely responsible for our success. Our very distant ancestors accommodated members who had problems — as Winder and Winder’s Vulnerable Ape hypothesis (2015) notes — and through that accommodation allowed genetic problems to become advantages. Caring for one another brought about an unmatched strength that rested in community, not in the warrior. Compassion, as the authors suggest, may not just be an outcome of evolution, but also its driving force. Embedded in who we are is the capacity to guide our future by the expression of compassion, and we may have been doing that since before the dawn of our species.
While the wild is ruthless, nature can teach us through our own history, the power of compassion to change the world.
Why are we often silent on compassion? I do think that compassion has been hijacked by some faiths as the wellspring of their superiority and divine veracity, but that’s an evolving and ever-more-modern construction: the earliest sacred texts — like Wycliffe’s Bible, for example — have far fewer occurrences of the term compassion than their comparable contemporary versions. To avoid comparison with some of those faiths, perhaps we have slowly and collectively ceded ground on embracing it as a core value.
It also points to another thing that compassion does unerringly well: it exposes hypocrisy.
Compassion is a natural activity and science has revealed our human capacity to express it. It’s beyond none of us; its absence implies pathology. There are no differences on the importance of compassion across cultures. There are no differences based on any human contrivance of group differences like race or ethnicity. There are no differences in gender or sex on the effects of compassion to others of the self.
In that the hypocrisy is exposed. Compassion unmasks the deep-seated and ubiquitous societal infrastructure that favors patriarchy. Sexual socialization on our society irresponsibly teaches boys vastly different skills than girls. It also teaches us that compassion is a weakness. The patriarchal structure of our larger society is acutely invested in maintaining rigid gender roles, rigid racial roles and rigid tribal roles to confound acts of compassion with infirmity, fragility and inferiority. It’s a powerful myth that preys upon us.
Recognizing compassion as the most powerful mechanism to change the world undermines that patriarchal narrative. It would mean that the stereotypical feminine quality of compassion would be more powerful than the stereotypical masculine qualities of aggression, competition and control . Our patriarchal society trains us to use the scripts of strength and authority as the preferred ways to better the world. We are inundated by that narrative in all our spheres of life from the personal to the political. Sharing in suffering as a means to create permanent change undercuts the patriarchal fiction, and that’s transgressive, even dangerous business.
That’s what we do, and do really well. We’ve erased sterile tropes before. It’s long-honored Pagan space. The origins of modern Paganism not only reclaimed feminine spirituality, it also gave us permission to embrace all aspects of ourselves. Pagans have been at the forefront of gender parity, from theology to practice. Exploring the asset of compassion is consistent with our accomplishments and actions. A conversation on compassion and compassionate action benefits us as a community as well as honors the commitment of our ancestors to break a cycle of gender-binding insularity.
Whether through Eleos, Hlín, Yemaya, Guanyin or others — or even through our own awakening as humanity — compassion is ultimately about change. It’s the most poignant of transgressions from a system that insists authority should be held by a privileged, masculine few.. Exploring how compassion debilitates oppressive forces, builds our community, expands our theology and informs our Pagan paths and Pagan spaces are all worthwhile dialogues. We should welcome that as new opportunities for embarking to new, transgressive horizons, especially since transgressive acts aren’t a thing that we occasionally do or occasionally talk about or even a space we occasionally visit. We actually throw parties there.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.