There is a lack of compassion in this world.
I’ve spent my life wondering why there are places and spaces I feel safe and others where I feel ill at ease: anxious, dismissed and lost. It was only last year I realised that what I was lacking most in my life, and perhaps what we were all lacking, was compassion.
Compassion: our first port of call with those who are vulnerable: children, animals, the elderly, the sick, but shouldn’t it be our default state, the way we treat the world and everyone in it?
Love is love, we say, leaving love to the others. It is self-explanatory. A narrative embedded in our society. We all understand it, it’s what we seek beyond all else. But seldom do we spend the same time on active compassion.
Do you know why? Compassionate people are the ones who die first in stories. Too good for this world, we might say, they were bound to die. We reiterate in our fictions that compassion will be wiped out – that there is no sustainable place for it – it will ultimately remain a memory, an ideal we can never hope to achieve again. Why is that?
Every one of us has felt off-kilter in this world, and the one thing that reorients us is someone reaching out, or us reaching out to ourselves, in other words, being compassionate. That much-needed hug, or much-needed cup of tea, that much-needed shoulder to cry on, or a listening ear.
Actively caring about people and ourselves makes us feel reconnected to the world. It reminds us we have purpose.
Have you ever spent days not paying attention to yourself? Skipping a shower or three, leaving your clothes to pile up, your floors haven’t been hoovered for a while, the sink is full — chaos is creeping in. Maybe it was triggered by something, but whatever the case, do you recall the wonderful feeling of finally having an empty sink, clothes happily folded in your chest of drawers. Your hair actually smelling of shampoo.
Looking after yourself is an expression of compassion. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it feels impossible, but there’s power in it. We need to be forces of compassion in our own lives, compassionate with ourselves when we need space, and compassionate with other people when they’re sad, lonely, or hurting, or even when they are at their very best.
You wonder why the world is falling apart. Why is the world being run by people who don’t care, or worse, who care only about themselves? The great tragedy of our time is our lack of real compassion. We believe that protecting our own interests at the expense of others is caring, but that’s too easy and easy isn’t sustainable – it isn’t long-term.
People in business will know this. Taking the easy route, taking shortcuts, will ultimately lead to decline. It’s why English Literature courses are dying. For all their emphasis on reading the creative work of others, why is it always the same work? A lack of creativity is dangerous. It’s why businesses flash and burn with hardly a trace. They didn’t choose the harder route, the route that requires a little bit of an overhaul, so they stagnate, and then freeze over.
The same happens with insular compassion. Oh, it is easy to care about the people closest to us, our friends, our best friends or our family — it becomes hardwired, but apply your generosity to strangers too, to people outside of your sphere. It changes lives. There’s a saying in my religion that Smiling is charity, so smile. I wish we were more generous with our smiles.
And I don’t mean the pursed-lip, slight head-nod smile. I mean the real one. The one that forms when you think about all the wonderful things yet to come. Everyone needs it. They really do. Sometimes, a smile to a stranger can make you feel real again, make you feel like you belong with them in this world. And maybe you’ll need that stranger’s smile one day. In this lightning rod of our existence on Earth, you are sharing this moment with a finite society of people. We’re dependent on them in ways we might never know. How extraordinary is that?
Compassion comes from a Latin word meaning ‘suffer with’. And the truth is, we’re all suffering from something, from childhood trauma, from adulthood trauma, from isolation, loneliness, illness, family troubles. Focus on the ‘with’ here. To suffer With means We are alongside, we’re united. Compassion is our best route to unity.
We need to remind ourselves who we are willing to act for and who we care enough about to go out of our way for, and the answer should be: as many people as possible. I think we have a duty to make everyone feel like they belong. Because they do belong, that’s the reality of this world. We belong here. As a Muslim, I believe that we’re all made by God, and every one of us is a gift to ourselves that ultimately returns to and belongs to God.
We should be as wary of hurting each other as we are wary of damaging someone’s belongings. We are treasures, each of us & we should treat each other as the treasures that we are, even those who don’t treat others or themselves that way. And if we can’t treat destructive and self-destructive people that way, we should at least remind them of their worth, the possibility that they can be better people. Sometimes that’s all you can do. People who don’t understand the value of life will never be able to learn human compassion.
We’re like plants that can’t grow if we are trampled on. We’re not weeds whose roots reach the centre of the Earth and never seem to die. We’re temporary here. We kind of have to look after ourselves. We need to respect that we’re here to help each other grow. I believe that because, Well, whoever looked after you did it so you would grow. I don’t think that ever stops being our purpose. So we should do everything in our power to make growing possible.
But when it comes to limiting growth, it’s not just active abuse we need to look out for. We hurt each other passively, by doing nothing. Yes, we neglect each other. We do not water or sun each other when we have ample water or sun to share: health, or wealth, knowledge or energy. We hold on to our privilege. Sometimes we don’t even realise we’re doing it.
How often is it you find that you haven’t sent that message telling someone you’re thinking of them when you’re thinking of them, you don’t make eye contact with someone you know because you’re reluctant to say hi because you think you might self-destruct if you stop for 2 minutes, and how many times do you look back and regret that time you didn’t speak up in that one moment you know you should have.
For some absurd reason, we withhold ourselves as if we constantly need preserving. What on Earth are we preserving ourselves for?
I know we have the capacity to be better, we have the capacity to be far braver. We have it in us to change the world with our compassion. I have maybe two sayings in life and I’ve put them on posters you can buy on Lucent Dreaming’s Etsy shop. One: Write what you care about, and two: In a world like ours, we all need to be heroes.
We do need to be heroes, we really do. No one else is stepping in to save us. They never will. Especially if they don’t operate with the compassion needed to do something heroic on behalf of someone so far removed from themselves.
This is how institutions damage us – they lack compassion. From our universities to our nursing homes. To our work places and our households. From publishers to governments. Worse, they tell us that we have to leave compassion at the door, else we aren’t staying in. They tell us we have to live in the real world and in the real world this is how it’s done.
To that I say: What’s the point of an imagination if we don’t use it to imagine and then create a better *real* world? How do you think the phone was invented? Or the plane? Or cameras, or countries, or national anthems? Someone imagined it. Someone came up with it. Then it became real.
Like, what the fudge. We are the real world. We’re the cast and crew of the real world. We can do what we like here. We can write our own scripts. We can design our own story arcs. Why do we keep being all Hollywood about it? Rehashing, remaking, rebooting the same old franchises, casting the same old actors in the same old roles.
These people live in a world of laws and unsaid rules they made up themselves and forced themselves to adhere to which they now call the ‘real world’. They believe in their made-up reality so much they won’t budge. You know laws are made up, right? They work because we all agree to their terms and they’re enforced by people who believe in them. The same goes for everything. For society.
The funny thing is we constantly blame society for the problems we face, but we are society. The reason we don’t feel like we’re society is because we don’t want to feel part of the problem, because we all feel out of touch with each other. We don’t reach out to strangers, we don’t try to talk to new people if we can help it, because we’re afraid we’re going to burn out, be ignored or worse, expelled. But, friends, we have to persist and we have to be brave. Especially when we’re ignored, especially when we’re turned away.
We can only change society by, believe it or not, changing society, by forging new alliances, new connections, creating and deepening bonds. Doing good work together. Giving yourself opportunities to do good work together.
The truth is at most, people have maybe forty friends. That goes for people in positions of power, too. Why not use that to our advantage? How many friends do you regularly hang out with? Maybe 5? 15 at most. Most of us probably have enough energy to spare a moment for a stranger. That’s plenty. In five seconds you can make someone feel noticed – that only requires a smile and a greeting; give them five minutes and you can make someone feel heard and understood just by being interested in their life. Treat them like a friend. You never know how much of an impact it might have.
Given everything on Earth is temporary, why not make that brief moment count? Maybe you’ll enter their sphere of influence – their forty friends, maybe you won’t — but leave them something worthwhile, leave them kindness and hopefully they’ll pass it on. Treasure them as a gift and give them the opportunity to treasure you.
All of us will burn out, it happens all the time, but better we do it making new friends, imagining new possibilities, caring for the world and producing art that matters to us, than watching a series on Netflix we don’t actually enjoy.
I know we live in Britain where we communicate with a front of politeness, but I think we have to change that. Politeness is a veneer to mulchy old sawdust. We need to stand with a front of compassion that shields generosity and bravery. And it’s got to be true right to the core. We don’t need a glossy veneer when we’re made of the real stuff.
I need you to leave knowing that it is up to us to make our ideas reality. It has to be us with the imaginations, the energy, the compassion that will make the world better. We have to be the beacons of “compassion first, rage second.” We have to be the people who foster communities. We have to make real compassion part of the real world. Look for ways you can leave a positive impact. Start small. Say hi. Usher people towards compassion. Hold the door open for the people behind you and invite people in.
I’m asking you to write a new script for Real World part 2. Give us better characters, give us compassion that doesn’t die in the final battle, show us a better type of real world where we aren’t complicit in the foolish, evasive power structures that deny us the possibility of real change.
All our childhood we spend playing pretend, making up rules for our made-up games as we go along. In adulthood we do nothing but play by the rules. We don’t dare even make up a new game to play. We’re too scared to push back. It’s absurd and we have to change that. I know it’s scary. But the truth is, we can set new rules, new boundaries and new expectations, and they will all be met if we all start believing in them, if we speak up when we need to speak up, if we stop being cowards with the truth, if we make and foster connections with the people around us, whoever they might be. And we can do it all by being just that little bit more compassionate.
This is a speech first performed at Where I’m Coming From in February 2019.