On Compassion for Oneself

When I was first thinking about what I would want to write for this blog, I realized at some point that I would need to talk about the idea of being compassionate for oneself.  I didn’t want this to be one of the earlier posts because the importance of it was only something I’ve recently internalized (and it also strikes me as being incredibly self-indulgent, even more so than this blog is in the first place).  However, shortly after my initial posts I fell into small period of what is probably a bit of depression (I write “probably” because it is not always easy for me to tell when I am depressed and when my heart is stressed in other ways), which is why there has been such a gap between posts.  I don’t want to write about depression now, but in climbing out of this dark period, I was reminded about the importance of loving yourself.

There are a few ways of arriving at the conclusion that having compassion for oneself is paramount to a compassionate life in general.  The one that has been the most effective for me I might almost call a pragmatic argument.  Compassion is a type of love and so best and most effectively expressed from a place of joy.  A heart that does not love itself cannot truly possess joy and so cannot love well, and is limited in its ability to exhibit compassion.  So, it must be the case that any deliberate effort at compassion towards others must begin with an honest effort at being compassionate towards oneself.

There is also more “theoretical” arguments which I can imagine various reformulations of, but the basic format is the following:

  1. It is a moral imperative to treat with compassion anything that is deserving of compassion.
  2. People are deserving of compassion.
  3. I am person.
  4. Therefore I am morally obligated to treat myself with compassion.

Points 1 and 2 of course require some work to justify, but they seem fairly reasonable to me (though I confess that there are some specific examples of people that would make it a challenge to justify #2).  This line of reasoning definitely appeals to me in a lot of ways.  The first person who argued it once described it as an “egalitarian” argument.

There is another practical argument that I like.  In a sense, a compassionate life is a mindful life.  To live a life devoted to compassion, you must be sensitive to the suffering of those around you and which actions, large and small, lead to such suffering.  Placing all of one’s actions in this context requires diligence and such diligence is born out of practice.  Which better object for such practice than oneself?

One of my goals with this blog is to cultivate awareness of my thoughts and actions by forcing myself to think and document them, and this will be the first such instance.  Again it feels a little self-indulgent to speak about compassion towards myself before compassion towards others, but perhaps it’s important as love for others is born from love for oneself.  This will be a modest beginning as I get used to this idea of publicly and openly discussing such things.  So, here is a way in which I failed to be self-compassionate today.  Before climbing into the shower, I weighed myself on my bathroom scale.  I was fairly unhappy with the number and as a result I turned to the mirror and, with a nasty look on my face, said something unpleasant to myself (I’ll choose not to repeat the wording here just to keep the language non-offensive).  Now, my weight is a problem, so a compassionate response would certainly not be to dismiss the issue.  I don’t know what the most compassionate response would have been, but I fell short on this occasion.

I have failed recently at treating one of my colleagues with compassion, and I will talk about such things soon.

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How to be a Christian without being a jerk about it

This is a beautiful post. The Bible is a complicated text and I find it difficult to extract a single coherent message from it (I don’t mean this in an offensive or critical way – it is simply my own experience), but I’ve always thought it a great tragedy that Jesus’s message of compassion is often given nothing more than lip service by many (but by no means all!) practicing Christians.

Feet in, Arms out

A few weeks ago, the marvelous Lindy West over at Jezebel wrote an excellent post called, “How to be an Atheist without being a dick about it.” As someone who has been the target of my fair share of dickish Atheists in my life, I really appreciated it. However, the behavior of dickish Atheists pales in comparison with some of the behavior of my Christian brothers and sisters. So, dear people, I give you some recommendations on how to be a Christian without being a jerk and turning everyone off to not only Christians, but to Jesus. (I’m going to try to cut back on the language in the event that some Christians who need to hear this are turned off by the swears. Let’s see how I do.)

1) Stop threatening people with hellfire and damnation. Nobody likes it. It achieves approximately nothing so far as spreading the…

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Introductory post

Last year, I joined an online dating site.  Online dating is a complex and sometimes ridiculous enterprise, but it can force you to assess your life in ways that you might not otherwise.  At the heart of the particular site that I use are multiple-choice questions that a user responds to and are used by the software behind the site to suggest possible matches.  Although many of these questions are silly, there are a few are thought provoking.  The one that I want to write about in this introductory post in a sense motivates the project that is this the blog.  The question is:  “If you had to name your greatest motivation in life thus far, what would it be?”.  The choices from which to choose are: love, wealth, expression, and knowledge. My answer was unequivocally knowledge; my twenties were spent in universities, first in college, then graduate school, and finally the beginning of postdoctoral research.

I answered this particular question around my thirtieth birthday.  Although I’m aware of how arbitrary such a milestone is, I did use it as an opportunity to reassess my life and its direction, and it was in this mindset that I considered the question.  The fact that my life could be well-characterized as a “pursuit of knowledge” felt immensely unsatisfying and sad.  To be sure, knowledge is not an unworthy thing to pursue (and the scientific enterprise is one of the most important projects that humanity has undertook), but I came to realize that this path was not, by itself, leading to happiness.  Science is beautiful and important and I fully recognize that the fact that I can take the time to worry about my life in the way that I have been is a luxury that I owe to scientific advancements (and a great many other things).  But the pursuit of science has not allowed my soul to grow.  I don’t think this is necessarily a universal statement; there are those who do find themselves happy and content focusing all of their energy on knowledge or whatever else they are pursuing.  But we all have to find our own path, and this blog is about mine.

During this time, I also realized how poorly I emulated the behaviors exhibited by the people that I love and respect.  I know, or have at least met, some of the most scientifically talented people in the world, and I have a deep respect for their intellect, but the people that I respect in their whole (rather than for just the limited aspect that is their intellect) are those that continuously act with compassion and kindness towards those around them. When answering this question on the online-dating site, I first became despondent by how poorly I followed their examples.  But it struck me that such loving kindness is a quality that can be cultivated.  My capabilities as a scientist increased as much as they did during my twenties not through innate talent (I am, at best, a mediocre scientist) but through intense, deliberate, and directed work.  If someone can devote this amount of attention to the pursuit of knowledge and achieve some amount of success, then they ought to be able to obtain success through the deliberate pursuit of a compassionate life.

My previous decade was devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and I want to devote this one to the pursuit of love and compassion.  I have started this blog to help me along the way.  I have not yet decided what form it will take, though I think initially I will take some time to try to express more precisely what this grand idea called compassion means to me.  It will also serve as a way to become more aware of the ways in which I demonstrate, or fail to demonstrate, compassion in my life.  I don’t anticipate being able to say anything particularly insightful, but I hope this medium will assist me in thinking critically about this direction of growth.