We Are All of Us Soft Animals: Ruminations on Compassion

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

I’ve been mulling rather consistently over the idea of compassion, of late.

Admittedly, my present preoccupation with the theme was sparked by a concurrent preoccupation with the “unfounded bomb threat” that occurred at my University in December. The stories that followed of the student charged in connection with the incident left me grappling with a number of concerns: the welfare of the student body, the welfare of the student involved, the policies and actions to be taken by the school, the resources in place to respond and how they would be implemented, and so on and so forth; and specifically, how compassion for all parties involved would come into play.

I’d wanted to write on all of this specifically at the time, but December-into-January proved a flurry of activity: my want for blogged-reflection, therefore, fell to the wayside.

And yet, the theme continued to pull at me.

So I turned my eye to all the myriad places where compassion dwelt—deliberately at first, and yet soon it was unprompted, soon compassion was everywhere, in everything, and I didn’t have to seek it: it presented itself quite willingly almost everywhere I turned.

In the journeys of my students as they approach graduation and submit applications for further study, I found that their passion met my own compassion in encouraging them to devote the very best of themselves to their projects.

In my current role of seeking to be present and supportive of ill and struggling family members, as I come up against resistance to rehabilitation options and changes in routines, I realized—and it took much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments before it sank in—that where frustration only led to greater suffering, greater guilt, and more debilitating exhaustion of the body and mind, to extend presence and support compassionately with less judgement and expectation (which is an ever-present challenge to manage, and I often fall short in the managing), underscores the struggles with love, and that truly does ease the way.

As I experienced said exhaustion in trying to fulfill the aforementioned role alongside working and both finishing one degree and applying for post-graduation opportunities, I was called to recognize with renewed clarity just how real the effects of simple, yet powerful acts of kindness—of compassion—truly are: text messages, Skype calls, random e-mails, and impromptu dinners, just to check in, to touch base, to offer support and hope.

And so: I kept returning to compassion, and soon I recognized anew that compassion wasn’t something I was reading into my everyday world. It’s something that the world itself is rife with, in its presence and its absence.

And that’s precisely why it’s worth reflecting upon, over and again.

The idea of compassion, of where we find it and where we’re missing its presence, is inextricably linked to the concept of inter-connectivity, of the way we impact one another as a function of existence. I’m teetering on the cusp of invoking Simone Weil again (unsurprising, really), but hers is a truly wise soul: it’s not merely a matter of what kindness we do unto others, what love we show them, but equally—just as boldly and generously and radiantly and fiercely—it is a matter of the joy that doing, that giving, that loving gives to us, and by the same token brings to us, opens us by default to invite joy in.

Because in receiving compassion, real compassion, by taking it in and integrating it, we are fortified to better offer it: to ourselves as well as to others. In offering compassion, we are not primarily drained, we are not made less: we cultivate relationship and experience, we learn presence and empathy. We practice the skills that bolster us, and in so doing, bolster others.

The giving is the taking, and vice-versa.

I read poetry. Often. It is somehow compassionate in its own way. So it is far from stunning that I’ve walked with a book of poetry, sat with a book of poetry, slept with a book of poetry next to my bed for the past few months as I’ve grappled with challenges and joys alike.

It’s the incomparable Mary Oliver, however, who has helped me most in understanding more fully just what the idea of compassion means.

Because compassion isn’t about lowering ourselves to offer it to another, or demeaning others in order to extend it to ourselves, and I think Mary Oliver is correct in saying that it’s not even about “being good,” because who’s to say what’s good, in the end?

No: what compassion is really about is tenderness. It’s about the “soft animal” that isn’t merely inside each of us, keening behind hard shells—it is each of us.

It’s so easy to forget that.

But we are soft animals. We are soft animals in suffering: in failing health, in changing capacities and abilities to thrive as we once did, to be as we once were: we are tender, we are vulnerable, we are profoundly human.

We are soft animals when we dare to expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection in exchange for the possibility of new potential.

We are soft animals when we extend a hand outward where we could instead curl inward, where we shed the shell—or at least reach beyond its confines—and choose to feel, to connect, to transform.

We are soft animals when we open ourselves to love—to give and to receive it—even when we feel too drained to appreciate it, or to offer it, or to recognize it for what it is, for what it’s worth.

And within all of this, more than anything: for soft animals such as ourselves, it truly is about love.

Because in many ways, that’s what compassion is. To suffer together—more broadly to feel together.

“Tell me about your despair, yours,” Mary Oliver beckons: “and I will tell you mine.” That is the heart of compassion, to share the vulnerability, to be in connection with and relation to each other so that we can remind ourselves that “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.” Compassion is that offering, that ever-vibrant possibility, that hand that reaches and grasps and holds, universal and innate, that announces our places “in the family of things.” The call to compassion is cyclical, is embedded in its promise: its promise invokes its call. We give it, having learned through receiving it. We embrace it, knowing that it warms.

And maybe if we all lived more out of the soft animal than the hard shell we build over it to shield it, to hide it, to keep it untouched and unharmed but yet, untouched, even by the things that spark wonder—unmoved by all that tempts us to dream: if we lived out of the soft animal, and allowed it to love as freely as it wished, maybe, just maybe, the giving would forever be the taking, and we’d return to compassion as a given.

I suspect that we’d be all the better for it.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “We Are All of Us Soft Animals: Ruminations on Compassion

  1. Thank you for your reflection. I especially appreciated the image of the “soft animal” as a metaphor for our willingness to extend and receive compassion. What your article left me wondering was about how the idea of compassion has been warped away from the idea of suffering/feeling with another. Do you think there is a sense in which we use the term “compassion” for situations where there is no experience of “suffering with”?

  2. Katelynn,
    I absolutely love the subject of compassion. Thank you for your thoughts on the incredibly important character trait. If you’ve not already, check out Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong. What I love about the Armstrong’s book is the practical steps that we take to intentionally make ourselves more compassionate.

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