Updated: Mar 10
"Compassion" and "empathy" are the words that one has chance to encounter almost everywhere - media, interaction with people and political dialogues. It has become a cultural imperative - political and social programs are criticized on their lack of "compassion and empathy", individuals who do not express the given imperative in the culturally acceptable manner are, not so rarely, labeled as evil or heartless. Compassion and empathy may be the only virtues that the modern culture has respect for. However, in divorcing itself from any other universal ethical standard, it has also divorced compassion from its wider context. Compassion has become nothing but blind acceptance of everything that comes (for being "judgemental" is a huge sin). Compassion, divorced from any other standard, has been reduced to sentimentalism, lacking any longer vision or grounding in anything but mere sentiment of the moment. In attempt to give compassion a grounding and standard, this post desires to explore, the seemingly, paradoxical concept of "wrathful compassion". Compassion is, Cambridge Dictionary says "a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them", Merriam-Webster defines it as "a sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with desire to alleviate it". Wrath, Cambridge Dictionary describes as "extreme anger", while Merriam-Webster tells it is "strong vengful anger or indignation". One wonders, how could those two exist together, support one another and not be in conflict with each other?
The expression "wrathful compassion" comes from Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, although it is not foreign to other religious and spiritual traditions as well - for nothing is mentioned more often than both, God's wrath and God's mercy. Wrathful compassion, in the named Buddhist traditions is quality of enlightened Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Devas. Their iconography is often, purposefully made, shocking, firghtening - their eyes are wide open and alert, their hair is wild, around them there are flames, they have sharp teeth, weapon, they dance on corpses, drink blood from the skulls, carry skulls around their necks and are very often, fully naked. They are also, in the exoteric sense, protectors - they are fierce in protecting enemies of dharma. In the esoteric sense, they are fierce and frightening as they have little care or compassion for practicioner's own, internal enemies that stand between them and enlightenment or their true, Buddha, nature. No attachments - be it a job, relationships are their concern, neither are practicioner's heavy emotions that come as a reaction, their compassion is reserved only for one's "true self". Wrathful compassion made visible in a mother's fierce push before child's hands reach the oven. Child may cry, may be angry at the mother for pushing their hand, but child is clueless about the fact that they have been saved from much a greater pain. The child only saw mother's fierce push but was not aware of her great compassion that was greater than her fierceness. As mentioned above, the concept is not foreign to other religions and spiritual traditions. In sapient traditions of Islam, particularly Sufi traditions, it is generally believed that God manifests Himself in the material world through His divine attributes. There are 99 of those, and among them are "Al Muntaqim" (The Avenger) and "Al Mumeet" (The Destroyer) and many others through which the Divine expresses wrath, but there are also attributes such as "Al Ghaffar" (All Forgiving), Al Wadood (The Most Loving), Ar-Raheem (The Merciful) and finally, the narration of Muslim Prophet mentions "My mercy prevails over my wrath" (Hadith Qudsi; Abu Hurayarh). The Bible, in Habakkuk 3:2, the Prophet says: "Lord, I have heard your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy." Wrath and mercy, as shown, are not rarely mentioned together as one may initially think. In most of spiritual traditions, wrath almost never, if ever, appears without hidden mercy and compassion behind it. Whether one is religious or not, or whether one finds the mentioned texts, sacred or not, or finds value in them, one can always meditiate on the ideas expressed in those, without superstitions and reactive oppositions. When wrath and mercy are brought together, the message that delivers often is that compassion and care, do not always mean giving to someone exactly what they want, that compassion and care do not mean blindly supporting any sort of self-destructive indulgence, that compassion and care are beyond and above, empty sentimentalism and verbal validation, that happiness is more than getting what one wants in the moment. It teaches that compassion must be grounded in long term vision, in awareness of consequences of actions. It also teaches that compassion is grounded in faith in potential of every individual, in their best, most beautiful selves. The spirit of that is expressed beautifully in by Goethe in "Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship": "When we take people,’ thou wouldst say, ‘merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved" Being "wrathfully compassionate" can be difficult, in era, when as mentioned above, being labeled as "judgmental" is feared and when any suggestion, advice, criticism is perceived as an attack, bullying and evil. The idea that "they can be improved" in culture that tells everyone that they are perfect exactly as they are will not be welcomed. Those reactions are normal and expected in a culture that worships indulgence. Ego always reacts aggressively when its attachments are shaken, ego is also short-sighted and cannot see love in anything that is not validation of it. Flattery is not love or care for anyone but one's own self. Blind validation and flattery serves nobody but the one uttering it and if there is any love in it, there is only love for one's image and the desire to keep it unstained. If compassion desires to have place and respect in a fast, competitive world, if it wants to liberate itself from sentimentalism and shallow naivety, it will have to be rooted in something beyond the emotional response of the moment. It will have to once again, to make wisdom and vision its companions, otherwise it will be nothing more than momental "feel good" and momental "feel goods" build nothing.
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