Friday, 2 September 2011

compassion. also, carob.

Compassion is a word that gets thrown around lightly, but it's one I take quite seriously. I sat down the other day and posed one of those ridiculous hypothethicals to myself (If someone were forced to describe me in a single word, what would I want that word to be - in other words, what is the outwardly acting part of me that I most value), and my first instinct was to answer "compassionate".

I thought about this a lot, because the answer surprised me and frankly, I thought it was boring and maybe a little too woo-woo to admit to publicly. I wanted a more exciting answer. I expected me to say "intelligent" or "creative". Secretly, I longed to have picked "transgressive". But when I was honest with myself, I stuck to "compassionate". So what does this mean in terms of habits? Habits are what we do every day. They are our default actions, and I would argue that our habits (rather than our occasional acts of grandeur or madness) tell what kind of people we are.

First of all, a compassionate person habitually acts with compassion. Yup. In my books, intentions matter less than actions. Intentions matter, of course, but the point of an intention is to inform action (or inaction). To act with compassion, I have to know what compassion is, and how the intention of compassion manifests in action. So.... compassion is a sympathetic consciousness of another's suffering (part one) combined with a strong desire to alleviate it (part 2). The definition is paraphrased from my trusty OED, and the parts are my addition.

Part 1: A sympathetic consciousness of another's suffering. This means that to act with compassion, I first have to put myself in the other guy's shoes. Or the other guy's feet, if the other guy happens to be unshod. To experience the first part of compassion, we have to shut up and observe others and try to figure out their point of view rather than our point of view. That annoying person next to me on the plane who can't shut up is lonely, or maybe scared of flying, or maybe they're just trying to be nice to me. There they are. I'm annoyed. I don't have to stop being annoyed, I just have to acknowledge that and also look at it from their perspective. Or... there's a chicken somewhere who has their own agenda. Most likely, being someone's dinner is not part of that agenda, even if that someone is hungry and likes the taste of chicken. From the chicken's point of view, my dinner is not their concern, and most certainly not something that they're willing to die for.

Part 2: A strong desire to alleviate the suffering of another. To act with compassion, after putting myself in the other guy's feets, I have to think of possible courses of action, and choose the one that makes them suffer least or (even better) brings them joy. So, maybe I can spend a few minutes talking to the annoying person next to me on the plane, at least until we're through the turbulent takeoff and they're no longer clinging white-knuckled to the armrest, and then tell them politely that I'm *really* looking forward to my book rather than glaring at them and putting on my noise-cancelling headphones as the plane lurches left and right. For the chicken, one option is to kill them quickly, but actually a better one is not to kill them at all. Food-wise, being vegan is how I understand compassionate action. And compassion is more important than pleasure. Of course, it's also possible (and important) to be compassionate towards oneself, but there's a big different between compassionate towards yourself and being indulgent or entitled.

Cultivating compassionate habits means that the day-to-day of what I do should be based on the two things above. Too often I see the pattern of merely declaring oneself compassionate rather than a focus on compassionate action. Frankly, if we have a strong desire to alleviate the suffering of another but fail to do so given an easy opportunity, then the desire probably isn't all that strong. It's true that some situations are harder to figure out, but many are simple, and working on the hard stuff is no excuse for not doing the easy stuff. It may be unclear to me which approach is best with a student who is struggling (tough love or gentle nudging or asking if they've considered a different area of study altogether), but that wouldn't excuse me mocking someone with a learning disability.

So what does that mean in terms of concrete action? I try not to look away from suffering when it is right in front of me. I refuse to pretend that homeless people aren't there. I refuse to pretend that the meat in the supermarket wasn't a sentient, feeling being. But I'm not perfect. Right now, I secretly wish that whoever stole my bike wheels returned home to find that their car was gone. Sigh.

Now, in the spirit of this actually being a food blog: carob. Another place that compassion is hard is towards people who keep on pretending that carob is just like chocolate. They ruin carob, which is perfectly delish in it's own right. So, while I go and try to cultivate compassion towards those well-intentioned destroyers of desserts, I leave you with this super-yummy dessert that in no way resembles chocolate.

Carob brain-freeze enabler

4 frozen bananas, peeled and in pieces (keep them already peeled and chopped up in your freezer at all times in case of emergencies)
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
4 heaping tbs carob
1 tbs maple syrup
tiny itsy bitsy pinch of salt

up to 1/4 cup soy or almond milk OR 1/3 cup soy yogurt

Put everything in either a high powered blender (like a Vitamix) or a food processor. Add enough soy milk or yogurt to let it blend, but only enough to let it blend, or your brain freeze enabler will go from spoonable to slurpable, which might not be a bad thing.... Blend until smooth and about the consistency of soft-serve ice cream. Serve drizzled with a little more balsamic and a little more maple syrup. Serves 2-3 people, depending how reasonable you want to be about serving sizes.

1 comment:

R said...

Your contemplation on compassion is really very touching.