Sunday, November 06, 2005

Loneliness and Compassion

Loneliness. It's the number one problem North Americans have apparently. There are about a quarter billion people on this continent, and we're lonely. It's not because many live alone, for people in marriages and in families are lonely too. The reason can be summed up in one word: selfishness.

People's worths here in North America are measured by their achievements, and the busier you are, the more you're seen to be achieving. Companies prefer employees who work all day and all night. We've had a trend of declining employment while those who work have to work more. Yet many work more than they need to as well. The busier they are, the more important they feel. The less time they have for you, the more important they are, for that means they're too busy achieving success in life to spend time with you. Of course, while they're busy achieving success, actual living passes them by.

The lonely are told how to solve their loneliness themselves. Funny how we don't look at ourselves as a society and as individuals and ask ourselves how we're creating the problem. There are other parts of the world that suffer privations of all kinds, but loneliness is not an issue.

Loneliness is solved by compassion, by the inclination to listen to others, to serve others, to call another up in the thinking of them instead of letting the thought go by, to observe -- really observe, not just wait for the chance to speak by observing when the other person's mouth stops moving -- to obey the inclination for good.

Genesis 2:7 says, "then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground..." In Hebrew, the word "formed" is uncharacteristically written with two yods instead of the usual one. Rabbis have interpreted this to mean that humans were formed with two inclinations: good and evil. The good is the impulse we feel towards God. The evil overpowers the good with its dulcet tones of doing what feels good. The irony is that what feels good not only leads to loneliness in others, but also in oneself.

Zarathustra spoke of good and evil as well. The creed of his followers is, "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." The order is crucial, for good deeds cannot happen when evil thoughts are present and encouraged. Deeds can masquerade as good ones, fooling those who only look at life superficially -- on the surface, ignoring the troubling signs in another's body language that one cannot quite finger -- but not the truly observant. Observation comes from the brain, not just the eyes. The eyes take in; the observant analyse the input, thinking about what it means. Compassion too is a thought. Those who are observant can spot loneliness in another, but only those who are compassionate will do something about it instead of waiting for the lonely person to ask. Compassion permanently alleviates loneliness. Just observing and waiting to be asked and doing only what is asked does not. That's why self-help doesn't work: the loneliness comes back once the asked deed is done or the distracting event is over.

I read somewhere that how we listen affects the other person's behaviour. Those who know they're being paid attention to, do well, come up with good ideas, are not afraid to try. Those who see their listener fidgeting, multi-tasking, eyes looking everywhere but at them, fizzle. Those who listen care about the other. Those who don't, are thinking about themselves -- maybe about what they have to do next, about how this person is taking too long, about how boring this person is, about what they want for lunch, about whether this person will make them look good and get ahead as a result or whether this person will get ahead of them in the achievement sweepstakes.

Some novelists and filmmakers have thought about what would it have been like to be Jesus; if they had been Jesus, how would they have been different from Jesus, how would they have reacted and handled the events during his ministry? In Jesus Christ Superstar, rock star Jesus becomes overwhelmed by the needy -- the sick, the poor, the outcasts, all of whom are at their hearts lonely -- and is unable to alleviate their suffering. But Jesus himself never felt overwhelmed. His compassion more than served the needs of the crowds who flocked to him year after year during his ministry. Mind you, he was divine and not just human. Yet how can we be so pathetic in exercising our compassion to just the relative few in our lives? Does busy-ness really excuse our laxity in this department? Why were we put on this earth anyway? To achieve? To achieve what? The answers determine whether we like to think we're compassionate but really don't want to put the effort in, or if we foster compassion in ourselves to the extent that being a friend to another becomes like breathing: effortless and part of who we are.

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