Friday, October 22, 2010

1200 Words on Compassion

Despite the dizziness and nausea an inner ear infection has caused me for the last few days I had to get up and write this. It’s been percolating through my brain all day...This is a lot of text for a blog that is mostly about vintage clothes and visiting places but sometimes I like to have deep thoughts, and you know, it's a personal blog so I can post what I want! I promise you pretty photographs and fashionable content in the next few days - I am, after all, heading to San Francisco this weekend!

Here goes:


The other side of Manila ...

In science class today there was an off topic discussion about dissecting and preserving animals. As a few of you may know, I’m a vegetarian and have been for the past thirteen years. My commitment to animal rights wavers and is conditional upon circumstances a lot of the time, but I do know, when all is said and done, it’s a personal choice I view as compassionate. Now, vegetarianism, to me, is a lifestyle choice that has it’s roots in alleviating the suffering of a small planet, and making a difference in as many places as possible. The choice is similar to the choice I make to purchase as much local food as possible, buy fair trade when I can, and give a portion of all the money we bring in to various causes like small needs and political parties we deem worthy. We want our lifestyle to be a direct reflection of our values.

That being said, I posted, rather haphazardly, that I was grossed out by the topic in my science teaching methods class, and that I didn’t need to hear about the way to clean dead animal skulls and the results of inexperience on taxidermy. During the discussion I chose to leave the room and re-entered when it was over. [note: this is a class on how kids learn science, not a particular branch of science itself - this was not a necessary discussion to the content.]

An acquaintance of mine took this post as an opinion on limiting academic speech. I could see how they misconstrued it as such, but when I re-explained that I make a deliberate choice to limit what I expose myself to he expressed this:

“I'm sorry you limit what you see and listen to. I have the biggest phobia of blood and needles, but I've still managed to: [he goes on to list things he’s done...] I'm not trying to be all high and mighty, I'm just saying I'm glad I haven't let my fears get in the way of learning and experiencing new things. I guess my view is every nugget of information is valuable and I'd hate to see my irrational fears get in the way of learning as much as I can. So buck up [...] embrace that education you're paying so much for... all of it.”

I stopped posting at that point because it was obvious that this was not going to be a productive discussion, but it really got me thinking about limiting the things that I see and view, and why I do it.

I am a great self censor - I watch very few movies that are rated beyond PG-13, I am careful about the material I read. I do not watch pornography, and if something or a conversation is unnecessarily violet or gruesome, I turn it off, turn the page, or tune out. I never watch the news. I wanted to get to the root of why, exactly I do that.

Asia - Philippines / Payatas

After a half-days worth of thinking I figured it out: I do not want to unnecessarily desensitize myself.

As a child, I saw a lot of sadness, and the worst of the world, really. I have early memories of destitution that a westerner would have a hard time believing. I remember vividly little girls in swimsuits on the side of the street with numbers tacked to their swimsuits - child prostitutes, some only a few years older than I. I remember hearing adults talking about people dying of simple things, easy things that a dose of penicillin would cure, or a few dollars of food a day would have staved off. I saw first hand the effects of callousness towards the environment and the living beings it contained. I saw greed, hunger, people shooting at each other, religious intolerance used as an excuse to harm. Hell, my neighbors even ate my dog. I kid you not. It ached, it hurt - and it was meant to be that way.

For survival, you try to get used to it - and then you have to unlearn that callousness or it will stop you from experiencing the fullness of life.

I never want to see so many violent movies that when I see it happen in real life it no longer triggers a reaction to want to stop it.

I never want to see so many naked people that I lose a sense of wonder and awe about them.

I never want to be so callous about the ache of the human heart that I no longer feel the desire to comfort and protect.

I never want to over think suffering to the point where it is meaningless and pain is normal.

I never want to find myself in a position where I have no empathy, where awful things no longer trigger a need to figure out how to stop it, where beauty becomes a common thing. I WANT my heart to hurt and cry out and quickly go to work trying to fix whatever is causing pain, I DON’T want to normalize these things. I want to keep my compassion in tact, and if it means limiting my exposure to the things that would tear that down then so be it. I will surely sacrifice learning the nuances of it.


Limiting my views does not mean I am scared of trying new things - I don’t cower in my room running from the sound of anything foreign and scary. I have had great adventures, I’ve stepped out on more limbs than I care to recount, I face the circumstances that I need to face with as much bravery and courage as I can muster. I could list all the uncomfortable things I’ve done, but that’s not what this is about - I just want to point out that my limiting of what I listen to or view does not mean I am running away from these things.

When I walked out of the room, I knew I knew enough, growing up in a country where slaughter was very public. It’s the same reason I leave rooms when there is a discussion about war - I have seen it, I have been there, my heart aches and that is good.

Lastly, on occasion there is no reason to visit it cognitively when you have been there in person. I find that people think academically about things they never expect to experience in a very serious way - this thinking helps them to attempt to understand things, broaden their views and form steady, serious opinions on them without getting their hands dirty. This is healthy, good, and I hope that they always stay snug and safe, but it’s difficult to say “look, no, this is how it was.” I don’t have a PhD on the topic so I have no authority. It isn’t enough I was just there, being tiny and scared and throwing up from heartache so I just stay out of those discussions. It seems you have the least authority on things that you experience in first person and it is good because sometimes you become unable to think academically about them - you begin to think with your heart, and there is often no place for that in academics.


  1. Outstanding. So few people can put together a coherent argument about anything.
    Your childhood experiences of unspeakable slum conditions have shaped who you are today. I was always afraid of scaring you by allowing you to be exposed to such things but I see that I didn't need to worry.
    The photos for this post brought back a lot of memories.

  2. Sadly we live in a world full of violence and children of today are desensitized to violence. Thank you for writing this post.

  3. I do think that youngsters are becoming desensitised to violence due to the role of video games and violent television removing it from reality. However as intelligent and informed adults it is a duty to see, acknowledge and make changes to prevent suffering. It is part of the human condition that we suffer; as much of a utilitarian as I am, sufferage is an inescapable fact of life. It would be nice to live in a place where this does not exist, where no one suffers, but suffering happens even if it's our own self-caused suffering. It just happens.

    I do all I can, and would always do all I could, to prevent the suffering of others - even if it meant sacrificing something of myself to do it.

    However I will watch a chicken being killed, a person being harmed or any other multitude of horrors if it informs me and allows me to make choices that better aid the lives of all concerned. I would very much like to ignore bad things, but to do so is to only live a small life, to not accept the world around us is to deny most of it exists.

    We are living in this world, we cannot simply close our eyes and ears to the horrors around us. As a human being, I have a strong sense of duty to mankind to improve our lot. This I can only do if I experience and understand what causes the misery and then try to rectify it.

    I cannot urge you to open your eyes and ears; it is a personal thing and something I would not presume to tell someone else. However do question your motives and reasons for doing this, because it is when we stop questioning our motives, actions and decisions that we stop making informed decisions.

    By the way, I am looking at this from both an academic (philosophical) outlook and also a (personal) human view. Again I'm not trying to change your mind but questioning the motives behind your decisions. If you're happy with that, then that's fine for you - everyone will always differ in their opinions and that is what leads to revelations in philosophy; debate.