A Call For Greater Compassion


Over the weekend, I posted a video on Facebook which shared the message of a famous spiritual teacher. Many were touched by and shared the video, but a few wrote disparaging remarks about the video, claiming that the spiritual teacher couldn’t be trusted because he struggled with alcoholism, as if we could never trust anything we might learn about spirituality from an alcoholic.

I found myself reflecting back on the twelve step meetings I was required to sit in on as part of my medical training. Attending these meetings with active and recovering addicts touched me deeply. Before experiencing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a young student, I had been taught by my parents and my church to judge addicts- at least that was my interpretation as a child. I thought addicts simply lacked willpower. I deemed them to be lazy, sloppy, even immoral. Addicts were people we should steer clear of and judge harshly. They weren’t as “good” as people who were able to stay sober. They were somehow lesser humans, and certainly, you couldn’t learn any spiritual lessons from a drunk or a drug addict.

A Lesson In Humility

I was humbled to realize that these “drunks” had much to teach me about what spirituality really means. I hadn’t realized that, in my judgment, I was committing one of the greatest spiritual “crimes.” I had forgotten that perhaps compassion is the most spiritual of virtues, and compassion was what these AA attendees had in spades.

As one after the other shared their stories of human vulnerability, heads nodded around the circle from others who understood the pain being shared. They told stories of childhood sexual abuse, parental abandonment, foster homes, and alcoholic parents. They had been beaten with golf clubs. Their mothers had knocked out their teeth. Some had been moved from orphanage to orphanage, being forced to leave the only people they found to love in each home.

They hadn’t just been traumatized themselves. They had also become perpetrators of trauma. They shared stories of how they had hurt others- betraying those they loved, stealing money from parents, breaking laws and even violently harming other humans. They spoke of blackouts and seizures and waking up disoriented in pools of vomit. They spoke of suicide attempts and jail time and spousal and child abuse.

As they told their stories of trauma and humiliation, often through tears of shame and vulnerability, the others listened generously, often in tears themselves. Nobody judged these addicts as they told their stories. Instead, their very raw stories were held with pure, loving compassion. It was fucking holy.

Who Are We To Judge?

I found myself crying too, not just tears of empathy as I communed with fellow human travelers who had suffered, but tears of shame at how I had judged these addicts. I thought of the people who had taught me to judge addicts, and I realized that they just don’t understand that these people are doing the best they can, and sometimes life is brutal. I wished those who judge addicts could spend just an hour living the lives these people had endured and survived. The fact that they were even alive left me in awe.  I found myself thinking I simply couldn’t have made it. I was deeply moved by their resilience.

Nobody’s Perfect

These are the memories that flooded through me as I read these comments on Facebook, judging a spiritual teacher who struggled with alcoholism.  I get that we’re all a little jaded from trusting people who claim to spout wisdom when they hide from us the ways in which they struggle. We hear stories of spiritual teachers embezzling money or sleeping with underage students or getting caught high on cocaine.  We’re tired of having the wool pulled over our gullible eyes and getting disappointed by our teachers- again.

I get it. Really I do. But every time we climb into this place of judgment, we commit the most unspiritual of acts- condemning another human for their human frailties, when those flawed humans need compassion, not judgment. One of the reasons I share with all of you the ways in which I struggle on my own journey is because I never want you to put me on a pedestal and think that I don’t struggle with my own human frailties. Just ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll happily fill you in on how very human I am!

Nobody Belongs On A Pedestal

We’re tired of getting disappointed by those who claim to be enlightened. But aren’t we just as culpable when we put others on pedestals? We want to believe that there are others we can model our lives after, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on any mere mortal. Isn’t it our responsibility to remember that nobody belongs on a pedestal, that we are all equal, we are all One, and nobody is “better than” or “less than” anyone else?

Every one of us is a teacher- we all have so much wisdom within. Yet who among us has it all figured out? Who isn’t screwed up in some way? These days, I live in a world full of famous spiritual teachers and self help authors. And so far (I haven’t yet met the Dalai Lama, so maybe he’s exempt), I’ve not yet met one free of human foible. But in spite of our imperfections, we’re all doing the best we can to make the world a better place, and we’re trying our damnedest to be good people in the process.

Trust The Message, Not The Messenger

Since when does someone have to be perfect before we can learn from the message they spread? We let ourselves enjoy music performed by highly imperfect musicians, and we enjoy movies made by imperfect movie stars. But somehow when it comes to spiritual teachers and self-help authors, we forget that nobody’s perfect. What if we could let ourselves learn from the messages these imperfect teachers preach without condemning them for their humanity? The minute we suggest that someone needs to be free of human flaws before we can trust a divine transmission that comes through, that’s the minute we are prone to the most unspiritual of traits- judgment. Would it not be better to open our hearts in compassion to those who are still struggling and veering astray on their spiritual paths? What if we can grant the same gift of non-judgment to other fellow humans?

Every single one of us is doing the best we can. None of us have it all figured out, even the ones you might be tempted to put on a pedestal. Do any of us want to be judged for our mistakes when we’re doing the best we can? The world doesn’t need more judgment. We need more COMPASSION, and every single one of us has the opportunity to grant this every day.

How Do You Want To Be Treated?

It sounds cliché, but perhaps we need only go back to the Golden Rule to remember how to behave. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I’d put money on the fact that you have screwed up in your past, and I can pretty much guarantee that you will screw up at least one more time in your life.  When you do, do you want to be judged? Let he without sin cast the first stone. Or as Venies Moncrieffe said on Facebook,”Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.”

So yes, in a perfect world, every spiritual teacher would be free of human flaws like arrogance, greed, cheating, sexual misconduct, and substance abuse. But show me one perfect person in this world. We don’t need more judgment in a world filled with it. What we desperately need is compassion for the little child within all of us that’s hurting because of past traumas, insecurities, limiting beliefs, self-sabotaging behaviors, and patterns we inherited from our imperfect childhoods. Maybe instead of judging the alcoholic spiritual teacher, we can find within ourselves a way to open our hearts to the little child within this man who never quite grew up. In doing so, maybe we can also open our hearts to the hurting little child within ourselves who needs and deserves just as much compassion.

Will You Practice Judgment Or Compassion?

Let me challenge you. Think of one person you’re judging today, one person who isn’t living up to your standards, one person who is disappointing you or doing something you don’t like. Would it be possible for you to tune into the part of that person that is hurting? Can you see that part as a little child who just needs love? Can you open your heart to that little child and reach out to that person with that kind of love?

When you do, you bless the world.

With compassion,

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