Compassion Part 1: mean people are unhappy people

I once took a ride to Burning Man with a guy named Jake. Jake had rented a gigantic RV and was looking for people to offset the cost of the trip. I joined on, with three other women along for the ride.

We rumbled off toward Black Rock City in good spirits, but Jake soon became challenging. He tried to charge me more than our pre-agreed cost for the trip. He was demanding and domineering and abusive. We stopped in every town so he could  stock up on sex toys and porn. He insulted and belittled me, and I swallowed his bait. Sulking and fuming, I lay awake wondering what I’d done to deserve such abuse and what I could say to burn his arrogant ass.

Then I noticed that he was doing the same thing to all the women on the gas-slurping behemoth. He was manipulating each individually, playing one against the other. The women riders, trying to keep peace for the duration of the journey, began to catch each others’ eyes behind his back, roll our eyes and shrug in solidarity.

Then, I felt this weird shift, and I abruptly slipped behind Jake’s eyes. Suddenly I was surrounded by unavailable women, cheaters and schemers who looked at me with contemptuous and condescending eyes. I knew I was disliked and that the world was shutting me out and mocking me. I was desperate to prove my sexual potency. I felt sad and lonely and became physically nauseous. I felt compassion for Jake.

And then, his behavior stopped affecting me. There wasn’t much I could do for our driver, but I was able to slightly de-escalate the other women’s reactive responses, and the rest of the trip went a bit smoother for everyone.

A couple of years later I was not surprised to learn that Jake had committed suicide. Mean people are miserable people.

It is easy to feel sympathy for those who are in “worse” shape than us – the impoverished, the sick, the victims. But can we feel compassion for mean people, manipulative people, people who have more status or more money than us? We know their lives can suck…but do we really believe it? Can we feel compassion for Stephen Harper or Kevin Falcon, or the anonymous residents of the Shaugnessy mansions behind their fortress walls? Their feelings of pressure, loneliness and inadequacy are no different from our own.

Compassion is often confused with sympathy or charity. but ot’s not either of those things. Compassion is empathic action, which stems from gut recognition. It doesn’t come from knowing others, it comes from knowing self, and looking hard into the mirror of anothers’ eyes.

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