Women and the Discipline of Compassion

The thing I love best about feminist theology is how easy it is to describe to someone who has never heard of it. Feminist theology is about humanization. It is about taking the focus off of the abstract and instead attending to the daily existence of all human beings. It is rejecting abstract dogmatic concepts in favor of praxis. Of course, the impulse to living in a feminist theological context is found in compassion. It is through compassion that we are led to reject damaging dogma. It is in compassion that we find our deepest and most generous theological impulses.

And yet, I’m convinced that compassion is still something we don’t quite get. We use the word as though it means mercy. But does it? Mercy, to me, implies a power relationship. The oppressed cry for it and the oppressor grants it (or does not). Mercy does not require “com” (together) “passion” (suffering). It requires only will. Others believe that compassion is a synonym for kindness. But kindness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. From where does it spring?

Compassion, actually suffering WITH someone, is quite hard to come by. I don’t mean by this that most people in this world are shitty, just that we’ve come up with less difficult ways to engage with others, ways that allow us to keep a degree of healthy distance. The trouble with compassion is that it can only really take place through an emptying of self combined with the desire to fully love the other – much like Christ did. And although we laud this ideal, how can we, as twenty-first century people, really get on board with letting go of the “I” so that we can love more fully? How is it possible to let go of our precious egos?

What IS the “I”? As a post-enlightenment people, we tend to equate our mind with “I”. Our likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts – those are all what make me me. And yet, wise people throughout the centuries have not thought so and have believed that discipline through meditation can teach a person to shed this illusive sense of “I”, what we now call the ego, in favor of a more universal “I” that is no “I” at all.

Here is an experiment. Take a moment right now to observe your thoughts. Right now, mine are telling me that I probably appeared like a total nutcase to the person with whom I just had a meeting. There is also a voice telling me that that is nuts, that I’m proud of how different I am and that I was just fine. In fact, there are several voices in my head judging the event and creating a narrative.

So, tell me, if I am my thoughts and feelings, then who is the “I” observing them? Who is saying, “I am thinking that so-and-so probably thinks I’m crazy.” Who is this “I” that is not making judgments about anything but merely observing what is going on in my head? I have no answer to that, nor does anyone else. And yet, it is this “I behind the I” that is observational and free of judgment that we really need if we are to truly become compassionate people. You can’t just decide for compassion, you have to make it into a discipline and learn to be at home with this hidden “I”. You must be able to separate your identity from your thoughts and emotions. Buddhists know this. Saints know this.

Emptying yourself so that you can fully experience the suffering of others has often been a trait universally ascribed to women. After all, isn’t one of the complaints we have against sexism that women are expected to abandon or sacrifice themselves for others? And if we have been socialized to do this, aren’t we automatically more compassionate as a gender? I argue that no, we aren’t, and that is simply because compassion as a practice demands an intentionality fully centered in a desire to love and understand another. When we empty ourselves as a social obligation, we are not fully intentional. Moreover, the kind of “compassion” we perform in this example does not necessarily require a true emptying but rather a denial of ourselves. Finally, abandoning self for others in this sense does not rely on the “I behind the I” but rather on the “I” constructed in our egos and social identities.

When women practice compassion as an intentional act, this emptying of self is done not as a gendered sacrifice of all she is, but as a spiritual practice of discovering her true self and that of the other person. Moreover, practicing the “I behind the I” helps her to develop self-compassion which is then passed on to her companion in a gift of true connection. Thus, practicing true compassion enables self-knowledge, self-compassion, connection, and healing – all goals of feminist theology.

It is when we can become self-knowing and self-compassionate that we can fully enter into the experience (have compassion with) another and it is that experiencing from which theology is born. Good theology is not made in universal decrees and inflexible dogma. It is born in experience and built from the ground up.




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