Updated: Jul 3
Compassion is a mindset; it is more than "feel-good" sentimentality. It is "I feel your pain" resonance coupled with the desire to help. The desire to help affirms our solidarity, our oneness, our commonality as human beings.
Working with the inner city poor, I taught many children who were growing up in horrific conditions. One of the saddest cases of abuse was a 9 year old boy whom I will call William. He had been expelled from several schools before coming to us. I had a reputation for "reforming" so-called incorrigible boys. When the principal asked me if I'd take him, she added that he would be sent to a reformatory school for juvenile offenders if I couldn't. She briefed me on his history and said she'd understand if I did not accept him. She assigned the most difficult boys to me. My hands were full.
William was raised in a crack house where he had been sexually molested by a cousin. His father was dead or incarcerated (I can't remember which). His mother was an addict. Family services took custody of the boy. An aunt raised him, but she clearly resented the burden. She cared for him as best she could and provided him the services he needed. William was troubled and illiterate when he came to her. He had been with her for about 2 years. Her efforts were heroic, but she was exhausted and at her wits end.
The teachers who worked with him could not manage his rage or violent behavior. He was expelled several times. He had internalized a profound self hatred and mistrust of adults. He needed love, acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Instead, he was met with irritation, anger, frustration, judgments, and rejection. He was not the problem nor were his overwhelmed teachers the problem. To assign blame would be simplistic. We were playthings of powerful, invisible forces we did not understand, investigate or question- yet we tacitly maintained structures that confined ourselves and others to littleness.
I welcomed William with some reluctance (I had an obligation to teach 30 other children). But I had faith in the power of compassion, of love, and of light to reach any child. He might challenge me to stretch myself and grow my heart out a size bigger. He might connect me to the best version of myself.
Compassion was not soft. Love informed discipline. I was stern, clear, and firm when I needed to be. I watered his heart with kind words, positive affirmations, genuine approbation, and respect. It didn't take much. The boy hungered for approval, to be seen, to be understood, to feel like he mattered.
I admired his strength and resilience. His trust in me was a gift that made me a better man, a man I could respect. Once a month, I'd take him out camping, kayaking, hiking, or on other trips as I would with my nephews or sons. With just a little love, he flourished and became one of my top pupils. Because he felt loved and safe, he could attend to the cognitive demands of schoolwork. For me, he affirmed the power of love to transform. He validated my efforts. My life had greater purpose and meaning because he was in it to exact from me all the goodness I expected from him.
The following year, I left to teach in Japan. I received reports that he was not doing well with his 5th grade teacher and had reverted to his conditioned, habitual behaviors. I feared his transformation with me was temporary. I knew he would respond to the fear and littleness of adults the way a caged puppy would respond to a brute wielding a stick- fight or flight. I followed up with him when I returned two years later. He was beginning to show signs of mental illness.
A decade passed. I moved to New England. I was heart broken, but not surprised, to learn that he had been arrested for armed robbery. I was facilitating a course on mindfulness for police officers and wanted to humanize the people they might be called upon to arrest. Police officers often encounter suffering human beings in their darkest, most vulnerable, and confused states. It is natural to have compassion for victims, but challenging to extend compassion for the those who commit crimes. Yet, it is those who most suffer who cause others to suffer most. Those who hurt others are often themselves hurting- themselves victims of anger, craving, abuse, a deep self-hatred, shame, guilt, self-disgust, neglect, ignorance, depression, or mental illness. William was clearly scarred by the traumas he suffered as I would have been- as you would have been. Or would we have been the exception? If you were born poor and dark-skinned in America, the son of a single mother and addict; if you were sexually abused and neglected, would you adopt white, middle-class values and pull yourself up from your bootstraps?
Statistically, I knew it was highly probable that the traumatized little boy who grew up in a crack house would grow up to inflict pain on a society that had never shown him much mercy, respect, compassion or kindness. Punishment was meted out before he was cast into the world. Many of my most troubled students were born with brains disfigured by alcohol and drugs while they were being formed in the womb. Some, like William, were born prematurely. Most were raised by single mothers, grandparents, or foster parents. All of them experienced episodes of neglect, violence, or trauma in early childhood. These constant stresses, according to research, could cause metabolic changes at the cellular level that compromised cognitive function, emotional well-being, and social health.
William was fatherless. According to research, boys without fathers were 5 times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves. I saw in these boys what I could have become. Without my father, I would have been at greater risk for failure. Where fathers are absent, children are 5 times more likely to be poor, twice as likely to repeat a grade, 4 times more likely to have an affective disorder, twice as likely to drop out of school, at greater risk of being physically abused, significantly more likely to become obese, and significantly more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
In the classroom, I stood in loco parentis, a surrogate father to kids who were being raised by the state. Like my father, a minister who ran a group home out of our brownstone in Brooklyn, I wanted to protect my students from the darkness and injustices of this world. Children with severe behavioral problems would often end up in my class. These were children, almost invariably boys, who didn’t respond to nonverbal cuing, contracts, timeouts, behavior charts, reverse psychology, support plans, modeling, assertive I-messages, conflict mediation, environmental controls, low-profile interventions, classroom management plans, counseling, suspensions, or “opportunity transfers” (expulsions in Newspeak).
Although they only made up 1-5% of the population, these high-risk students sabotaged the best of lessons. These were the ones who cursed their teachers, who’d walk out of class, who’d punch, kick, bite, or spit at any child or adult when they exploded. They were expensive to teach in terms of energy, time, and resources. It often required support teams made up of teachers, administrators, the school psychologist, caseworkers, and mentors to handle them. It took a village of government do-gooders to raise a boy in the ghetto. Yet, many of these boys would end up in state penitentiaries when they grew out of childhood, traveling the well-worn path from slum to cell.
In 1971, the year I was born, there were roughly 300,000 people in prison. Presently, more than 2.3 million people sit behind bars. According to author Silja Talvi, one quarter of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States. The International Centre for Prison Studies in Great Britain, tracks prison populations worldwide. We’re ranked first. There are almost a million more people serving sentences than are serving in all of the branches of the U.S. armed forces combined. Add 7 million parolees and ex-cons and that’s 9.2 million people found guilty at some time of some offense. New York, America’s largest city, has a population of 8 million.
These numbers represent lives. These sentences not only affect the 9.2 million who serve them and the millions who were wronged, but families and communities and the national interest also. The pain and fear translates into barbed wire and security guards and alarm systems and handguns and restraining orders and increased caseloads and prisons and three strikes laws and huge court dockets. Pain and fear assume physical form, becoming structures of brick and mortar and stone walls with guard towers. We invest in fear. It costs thousands annually to house one inmate and billions to jail the lot. There are hidden costs: lost tax revenue, the costs to raise an army of police officers (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs), the costs for prosecutors and judges (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs), the costs for wardens and prison guards (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs). There are other hidden costs: depreciated property values, capital flight, higher costs to do business in “neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage,” inflated prices for basic commodities like bread and eggs at the corner market, higher insurance premiums, brain drains, and the costs to feed, house, educate, and otherwise provide for the dependents of the incarcerated (and the wages, healthcare, and pension costs of the government employees who oversee the bureaucracies). Then there are the costs of wasted human capital. We have more prisons than universities. The state of New Jersey spends more to keep a man incarcerated than to send him to Princeton. The government allocates $68 billion for education and 80 billion for “corrections.” We need a correction. In a global, knowledge-based economy, where human capital is valuable, 2.3 million people in prison represents a terrible loss and liability.
The ultimate hidden costs are psychological: the hardening of hearts, the hatred, the blame, the anger, and the deadening of empathy and compassion for one another. We submit to fear, imagining ourselves as separate, blind to the truth of who and what we are, co-creating hellish realms with thought, imprisoning ourselves in structures of fear that keep the illusions of our little selves safe. Brick by brick, ballot by ballot, bullet by bullet, we build a culture of anger, of hatred, of fear. Law by law, sentence by sentence, jail by jail we invest blindly in a society increasingly devoid of compassion, of love, of peace. We see the prisons, but we cannot see the thought forms that imprison us. Thought by thought, link by link, we chain our hearts to darkness. Shackled to fear, the collective "I" mis-creates a world of suffering generation after generation.
"People think that fear keeps us safe," affirmed Anita Mooritani, "but that's actually not true. Love keeps you safe! When you love yourself and you love other people, you make sure you keep yourself safe and you keep others out of danger." All the while the Light that abides in us waits to be discovered. Leo Buscaglia put it this way: "We continue to scoff at love. And the result? More loneliness, more aspirins, more high blood pressure, more psychotherapists, more ulcers, more headaches, more frigidity, more impotence, more insomnia, more laxatives, more anorexia, more overeating, more weariness, more boredom, more despair, more suspicion, more drugs, more intoxication, more mistakes, more frustration, more fear, more suicides, more hate, more prejudice, more killing, more prisons, more divorces, more failures, more sadness, more envy, more pain, more violence, more ignorance, more bigotry, more stupidity, more apathy, more tears, more death."
Most prisoners are poor; most are uneducated. Harsh sentences are meted out to those born into harsh lives; the darker the skin, the harsher the sentence. Of the 2.3 million currently behind bars, 41% are Black. That’s twice as many Black people who were shipped as slaves to North America between 1525 to 1866. Slavery shape shifts into penal labor. More than 19% are Hispanic. Blacks and Latinos make up 60% of the prison population in America, but 13 and 17 percent of the U.S. population respectively. 60% of 2.3 million is 1,380,000, roughly the population of Phoenix, Arizona- America’s sixth largest city. These numbers suggest a social and cultural pathology. Prisons are one way to contain socioeconomic discontent, to mask political apathy, and to displace our own prejudices, biases, and hatred. Fear informs what we see and justifies the structures we bring into being.
Of the 1,380,000 Black and Hispanic prisoners or parolees, 90%, or roughly 1.2 million, are men. These men are sons, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles. I taught the collateral damage- the children: the sons and grandsons and younger brothers and nephews- a generation of hyper-males unsure of how manhood should act, talk, or think. The muscles, the tattoos, the guns, the gangs, the bottles of 100 proof liquor, the drugs, and the posturing affirmed fear. Behind the masks, I saw longings for safety, for respect, for fairness, for validation, for acceptance- a deep need to be seen, and a desperate call for love.
I was heart-broken to see William's mug shot. I knew most would see the face of a criminal, a bad guy, a monster who deserved the harshest sentence. I saw a 9 year old boy who taught me more about patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion than I ever learned in any graduate class on teaching. I saw a boy who taught me to how to love more perfectly. I saw sadness. I saw pain in the eyes of a young man who wasn't given the same opportunities or afforded the same chances I had in this life. His father wasn't present in his life as mine was. His parents did not model appropriate behaviors as mine had. His parents did not read to him or surround him with books or take him to museums or attend parent-teacher conferences or enroll him in after school enrichment activities or simply tell him he was loved. Are we not morally superior to him? We can blame his parents and absolve the collective self of any responsibility for the seeds of thought that became things like shackles and jails or intangible things like housing and job discrimination.
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell challenges the myth of the self-made success and argues that those who succeed are often beneficiaries of hidden advantages, unusual opportunities, or cultural legacies that allow them to prosper in ways others cannot.
To pretend that race or money do not matter is to acquiesce to injustice. In one of my first assignments in South Central, Los Angeles, I walked into a classroom with no books. The injustice and hypocrisy stung. I found a warehouse that sold used textbooks for pennies and purchased class sets of math, science, reading, and history books. I also found a science center that loaned out science materials, models, and kits. I wrote grants and transformed my classroom into a place of learning. Compassion oriented the heart to action. Decades later, when I taught mostly white, privileged children at the other end of the economic spectrum, the private school provided the resources I requested and the support children needed. Such were the expectations.
I withdrew from law school and became a teacher because I thought I could intervene in the lives of the children who needed a strong advocate. True knowledge of self- not the trivia peddling that passes for education- could provide a hedge. The cure for the despair and suffering I saw was in the mind. This was not to ignore or pretend away history, slavery, Jim Crow, racism, politics, or economics, but rather, to assert that the human spirit was resilient enough to overcome the horrors of slavery, the injustices of Jim Crow, the pestilence of racism, the machinations of politics, and the disparities of economics. I positioned myself in the early elementary grades (2nd-5th grade), where I hoped I could make a difference for those who were most vulnerable, but I often found myself frustrated with the system itself. Change would not be achieved without the resolve, commitment, and love of the collective-I. The lone crusaders depicted in bellyfeel-good Hollywood movies that simplify or ignore systemic problems will not effect true, systemic change.
William had committed a crime. He was judged and sentenced. But hadn't he already been judged and sentenced as a child by faceless adults quick to punish and expel, quick to invest in policing and penitentiaries, but reluctant to support the kinds of programs that might help a boy rise above his circumstances? What possibilities might have flowered if, instead of mis-creating from fear, we created out of love? Are we not capable of reimagining a culture of true justice, peace, and compassion?
Many of us blessed with advantages often judge and look down on the Williams of the world with hard-hearted self-righteousness, when it would be more compassionate to extend a hand and promote conditions that would improve their lives. And how much happier, stronger, and fulfilled would we be if we did this!
Compassion filters how we perceive others. It is a faculty that can be trained. With training, we restructure the brain. Compassion is one of the qualities of mind that contributes to our sense of well-being and to the well-being of others.
With the Commonalities technique we practice on retreat, we can develop the ability to take another's perspective. The Commonalities Practice focuses on our similarities with other human beings. The Commonalities Practice helps us reframe our thinking and replace our attack thoughts with compassion. In dealing with others, we think:
1. Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.
2. Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
3. Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
4. Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.
5. Just like me, this person is learning about life.
By practicing focused meditation, we can reorient our attention and remain present with another. By developing good will for others and cultivating compassion, we can increase prosocial motivation.
Compassion is more than a fleeting, "feel good" emotion. There is a deeper recognition of our interdependence which influences how we live, how we consume, how we interact with others. From this awareness, our compassion extends out to others. A boy like William will cross your path, challenging you to grow. He will come disguised as someone who threatens the identity of your little self. With compassion, you will see him clearly. In him, you may find your way to your highest self.