Compassion for Every Perspective

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In each interpersonal interaction, every person involved has a meaningful perspective deserving of compassion.

One of the most valuable insights I got from learning about Nonviolent Communication is that all people at all times are doing their best to meet their needs. This doesn’t mean their actions are always graceful or kind. It doesn’t mean that it’s always easy for the outside observer to tell what needs are being met. It doesn’t mean that the person could describe their own actions in those terms. And, most frustratingly for everyone involved, it doesn’t even mean that the actions are effective at meeting the needs in question.

It just means that people are complicated.

We each have our own needs, fears, histories, wishes, passions, skills, and deficiencies that we bring to our interactions. All of those things interact messily with other people’s stuff.

Acknowledging this is what allows us to be compassionate towards other people. This compassion can bring us greater insight, greater peace, and enrich our lives and the lives of the people we interact with.

A few years ago I had an uncomfortable interaction with my mother. As I was bitching to a friend about the situation and about my mother, my friend gave voice to my mother’s perspective. He said something like, “That must have been really painful for her.” This gave me pause, but ultimately I said, “Look, it’s okay with me for YOU to give her sympathy; it’s not that I don’t think she deserves it. It’s just that it’s not going to come from ME. I don’t have it to give.”

Knowing that everyone has their own stories and reasons and believing that they deserve compassion does not mean that everyone has to give everyone compassion at all times. It’s probably impossible to do that. Striving for that may not even be the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s more important to protect yourself than to have compassion for someone else. Sometimes it’s okay to “pick sides” instead of attempting pure compassion for everyone in a given situation.

One place where this makes sense is when you simply need to protect yourself, conserve your energy, or lick your own wounds, like in my situation with my mother. Another place where it makes sense to “choose sides” is when someone is in immediate danger. If person A just punched person B in the face, you probably want to focus on person B’s safety before any lofty exploration of person A’s motives or situation. I want police and courts to take sides in some situations, of course, and friends and family groups might be expected to be more compassionate to their own. Sometimes we might try extra hard to extend understanding into an area where others normally don’t, because we know the other perspectives are well taken care of. Or we might reserve compassion in a particular area that pushes our personal buttons.

It’s okay to choose who and when and where we’re capable of being compassionate. It’s okay to say, “Not me, not now.”

But none of that takes away the fact that everyone has a meaningful perspective and deserves compassion.

Everyone has a perspective. Everyone has needs that they’re trying to meet. Everyone deserves compassion, even if it’s only from their therapist, their priest, or their mother.

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