On Compassion


1) The content in this post is meant for adult audiences. It contains material that is graphic (unfortunately) and violent in description.

2) This might be a little bit on the long side, and my apologies for that. But this is not something that can quickly be covered in a blog post. But I will do my best.

3) This post will probably raise more questions than answers.

I’ve been sitting on this post for some time. I started to write it, and then just saved a little bit as a draft. It felt like it was going to be an important one, and as this is a very serious topic, I’d thought I would make sure and give it proper consideration.

Awhile back I ran across this article. Please read it before reading any further here. I’m not sure how much media coverage this has gotten. I don’t have TV (I do Netflix or watch on the internet or listen to NPR) and I tend to be out of the loop on things, but I don’t recall hearing much about this story in the major media outlets after it first broke.

At first, I was saddened by this. I was emotionally overrun. I’m not sure if it’s my practice that led me to feel this way, or maybe it’s just the brutality that I hadn’t imagined possible in our backyards. I haven’t felt emotions like this from a news story since little Kayla Rolland was killed. I didn’t break down and cry, but it was the first time in a long time since I felt so much empathy from a news story. I couldn’t and didn’t want to read any more or hear about it. It was too brutal. Too savage. This is not a reality we as Americans are accustomed to dealing with. This is something that happens in Darfur or Burma. But savage brutality is not limited by geographic or political boundaries. It is not something that is intrinsic in any singular race, age group or religion. The reality is that sometimes, Darfur is in our backyard, and right outside of our schools.

After the initial sadness of this story vanished, it was replaced by anger. Pure hatred. Remember that scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton just goes to town on Jared Leto? That’s exactly what I wanted someone to do to these boys. This trash. Wastes of human existence. I wanted them to know how it felt to be in that girl’s position. To have the totality of yourself be completely dominated and then obliterated in one moment. This girl will never be the same. Any semblance of who that little girl was before that night has been nullified.

But now I’m trying to feel compassion for these individuals. Not just because that is the “Buddhist” thing to do, but because I’m starting to see that true compassion cannot exist conditionally. In order to do that, I suppose I have to first understand how/why this took place. I don’t think there is an easy explanation, but I’m going to try and at think it through here.

First, let’s take a look at the attackers. The attackers themselves were just children, all teenagers. We know how out of control a teenage boy’s hormones can get, but we also know that rape is almost never about sex. Rape is about anger, about power. I can watch a scary movie and not get too freaked out about people getting killed in it. But I cannot watch a rape scene. This is still something that is fairly taboo in movies today, but is steadily creeping in. I’m wondering now why it is that I have such a hard time watching sexual assault, even when I know it’s fake. I think maybe because it represents a loss of innocence. It represents the de-humanizing of another individual. Watching someone be assaulted in this manner is watching someone have all their power, their freedom, their will, their “self”, stolen by another person. It is the most brutal of torture, because it tears apart the victim’s mind. Their reality becomes forever shattered. A body is much easier to heal than a mind/psyche. I wonder what will happen to this girl?

So why the power grab? Did this just boil down to a case of pecking order, alpha male, leader of the pack macho-ism? I think it’s something more than that. I think part of it is the desire to fit in. It seems like this need and desire to belong and be accepted is growing inside our youth, multiplying itself exponentially with each passing generation. It used to be that you needed to just fit in with your peer group. Now, you have to fit in with the entire world. The information age has given birth to a new global community. We’re able to invite the whole world into our lives with a blog, a MySpace profile, Facebook, Twitter. And with that invitation, we’ve unknowingly opened ourselves up to criticism on a global sense. So instead of trying to impress just their schoolmates, kids now have to compete with children from all over the country, and all over the world. And of course there is the media. Kids are trying to fit in with Hollywood, with MTV and their teen celebrities of the week. This enormous pressure has led kids to try and leap over moving cars in the attempt to be the next YouTube star. They’re willing to risk it all for popularity.

Maybe that’s why the 20+ witnesses did nothing to help out their fellow human. They were too worried that if they would speak up, that they’d be thrown out to the fringe of their social stratosphere. Or maybe it’s the YouTube culture that has made them numb to reality. They’ve become accustomed to playing the audience in the grand play of life, rather than step up and be the actors. It’s easy to sit in the cheap seats and hurl insults or applause. But it’s so much harder to get up on stage and put yourself out there for the whole world. And when they do step out of their shells, what does our youth do? They put it on the internet. They text. They don’t take the big leaps in real life, because the risk is too great.

Back to the attackers. What made them think that this wasn’t that big of a deal?

Theory 1) the disconnect

First let me say that I love the internet. I love what it has done for communication, the flow of information, and all the pictures of stupid drunk college kids doing something embarrassing. I’ve talked about this a little before but this time is a little different.

Maybe it’s something bigger than just internet and TV. I wonder if this mentality started becoming more prevalent when our society started becoming more automated. We have less of a hands-on approach to life than we ever have before. All of our food comes pre-packaged for easy consumption. Our grapes come from Chile, our Chili comes from a can, and who the hell knows where hot dogs come from? Our clothes come from China, our news comes from a box, and our relationships come to us via MySpace. We rarely touch the things that affect us most in life; and are mostly clueless and unaware of their true nature and origins. If we’ve become this disconnected from our food, our shelter, our every day necessities, isn’t only natural that the next great disconnect would be with each other?

And once we become disconnected, why then should we assign any meaningful value to each other? Is that what happened here? Did these boys become so disconnected from humanity that they no longer viewed this girl as having any intrinsic value whatsoever? It’s obvious that these kids didn’t give two shits about their actions or think there would be any consequences, but why? This was so brutal! This goes beyond your everyday bullying or school fight or over aggressive male dominance bullshit. This even goes beyond your normal case of rape.

Theory 2) The boys are evil.

That’s not meant as a joke either. These boys might just be evil. Stripped of any kindness, compassion, empathy, or anything else of value. These boys might just be empty inside and downright evil. Maybe they’ve never known compassion in their own lives, never been touched by kindness. But is that possible? That they’ve grown up in a micro-society void of any goodness, right here in America? Some sort of empathy vacuum? Maybe it isn’t void of any charity and kindness, but rather in their world, that which we consider “good” is just the opposite. Narcissism, indifference, and cruelty are their noble virtues put up on a pedestal to be videotaped and broadcast via YouTube. Those that don’t fall in line will be ostracised, victimized, and scattered to the margins of their society. Is all of our “good” seen as weak and useless in their world? And if the media has become their primary parental figures, influencing them more than their biological parents, their religion or their neighbors; and knowing what the media does to distort the truth and sell ads, maybe it’s not that crazy?

I suppose it’s just speculation, I’ll never know for sure. Maybe this is what’s so troubling. We’ll never get to the root cause of this. It will happen again, and once more we will be left shaking our heads, wondering what went wrong. Wondering how our own youth could do this to each other. We’ll cry out for their heads on a platter, and they will be sent to jail for most of their young adult lives, and then some. And it will happen again. And again. Because as a society, we aren’t willing to look at the “bad guys” as having any value. The problem is with them, not with us, so we’ll just lock them up when they step out of line (and we know they will). All the time not realizing that there might just be a way to prevent this from happening.

How do we do that? I don’t know. Maybe we could start with compassion?

That’s all for now. Cheers.



Filed under Buddhism

7 responses to “On Compassion

  1. I was sexually assaulted by a visiting male professor during college. After I slipped out of the dorm room he was staying in, where the assault took place, I walked home, crawled into bed, shook for an hour and then stayed silent about the whole thing for almost a year and a half. In the years following, I went through all sorts of views about what had happened, and a wide range of emotions, including rage, revenge fantasies, and all sorts of other miserable things. The reality is that it was only through developing a sense of compassion for the man who victimized me, that I was able to heal and move on. Nothing else worked, and it was a powerful lesson in the failure of demonization, and also in recognizing how interconnected we all are, right down to the containing the seeds of our own destruction.

    Compassion is necessarily complex. In terms of my situation, it required me to recognize and state clearly that he is responsible for violating my trust and my body. It required of me a willingness to let myself grieve, feel anger, rage, and to cry without judgment. It also required of me a willingness to see that he, too, is human, and one who has a lot of shit to deal with and wake up to. I hope he has woken up to at least some of it in the decade+ since the assault.

    Those boys are like my assaulter, and also like you and I in some ways. Lots and lots of delusion, and misery producing actions as a result of failing to see through that delusion. They are responsible for what they have done, and also muddling through the best they can, like most all of us. Their best isn’t too good, for sure.

    May we all awaken and be more peaceful each and every day.

  2. Elsa

    Your empathy astounds me, Adam. I am always blessed in some way by your posts. You make me think when my brain is fuzzy, and I appreciate it.

  3. @ Nathan – wow. thanks for sharing something so personal. I do want to reiterate that I do feel that these individuals are 110% responsible for their actions. I suppose my main purpose in writing a post like this or some of my other “on the human condition” posts is to try and identify how things like this happen, and what type of mindset/rationality is in place that deems these actions acceptable in the mind of the attacker. Maybe through better understanding we can find a way to prevent things like this in the future. Probably wishful thinking on my part, but the optimist in me can’t let go.

    @Elsa – thank you. Very much appreciated. Just remember, I did say “I’m trying to feel compassion for these individuals” – keyword “trying”. Usually when I do think about this now, I just wonder what that girl is going through. can’t even begin to imagine.

  4. Your writing really moved me in this post.

    Lack of impulse control, possibly use of substances, social pressure, fear of the group, low self-esteem, social acceptance of violence and many other factors come into play.

    Given a particular set of circumstances we are all capable of incredible cruelty. Fortunately, for most of us, those circumstances don’t come together.

    From that perspective though any of these boys are me.

    I find empathy for the perpetrators because I have felt a sense of desperation and helplessness in the face of circumstances. And have acted in hurtful and destructive ways as well primarily to drive off these feelings.

    Sometimes to find compassion stepping away from the specifics of the moment and into the general emotional or psychological tone even from memory brings it home for me.

  5. Adam, I’ve been stewing over this post since you first published it. I feel it deserves more than my usual comment that everyone is 110% responsible. I do believe that but at the same time, I need to push past it to another understanding.

    I worked for many years with youth who were classified with “Conduct Disorder.” They were in serious trouble at home, in school, with the law. Some had committed crimes as serious and reprehensible as what you describe. I worked with them, with the authorities, with their parents. These were hard, hard days of trying to get the people important to these young boys and girls to step up and do their 110%.

    I’m not asking that we let the youth abrogate their own responsibility. But we have to ask how they can cultivate responsibility when they have so few role models. Walking the solitary path is difficult – for all beings.

    Of the many varied things I do as hopefully right livelihood, the ones that involve helpless victims are the most painful. Unlike my more enlightened colleagues, I don’t see perpetrators as victims themselves. They are lacking in the skills to make the changes needed. And sometimes they need a certain type of teaching style to learn that. I say that carefully because I don’t necessarily mean the harsh punitive systems we now have in place.

    If only there were answers.


  6. I’m having lots of reactions to your post, but I’ll comment on just a couple, and probably not very eloquently because I’m still working a lot of this kind of stuff out for myself.

    Thanks first of all for posting this and talking about your reactions and thoughts about it – the fact that you so thoroughly and honestly thought about it and its implications and took the time to post about these things reminds me that there is a lot of good in this world, despite the horribleness that is also in it.

    I really identify with what you said about the disconnection part. I feel more and more that disconnection from ourselves, others and the world/nature itself is what is poisoning humanity and the relational existence we’re meant to live in. I think that disconnection from themselves and from the survivor of the assault is a big part of how this could have happened and how people could have watched without doing/saying anything. And then society does more distancing, in terms of vilifying/hating the perpetrators, and extracting ‘justice’ by means of imprisonment in an environment where the only way to survive (physically and mentally) is to further cut oneself off from any kind of emotionality or vulnerability. I work in the prison system, so I’m not just talking out of my butt here. I also agree that the perpetrators are 110% responsible for their actions, but we as society are also 110% responsible for the role models we provide, and the values that we propagate. These days, society rewards psychopathic behavior, so we shouldn’t be surprised when there are more and more psychopaths. As you note, compassion, unconditional compassion, is the only antidote to this.

    Thank you for being compassionate and calling for compassion when it would have been easier to do what society generally does, which is just point the finger of blame and call for vengeance in the guise of justice.

  7. @Nella- good points. Given the right/wrong circumstances, that could have been any of us. Very humbling actually.

    @Genju- thanks for the insider perspective. I wonder if there is any real hope in helping those youth and affecting real change in their lives? I’m sure that it does happen, but I have to suspect that is the exception and those cases are far too few in number.

    @Theresea- I’m still hearing more about this case and it’s still mortifying. Makes me want to take a shower really. And I also think the prison system is mostly a joke.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.