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Changing Our Self-Perception as a Compassionate Deed for the World

Updated: Mar 30


Photo by Tuva Mathilde Løland on Unsplash.

Joseph Campbell reminds us in Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation:


Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love – and I mean love, not lust – is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, ‘This is a challenge to my compassion.’ […] Of course, Saint Paul says, ‘Love beareth all things,’ but you may not be equal to God.


Who else can relate to feeling inadequate in viewing their challenges from God’s eyes? Campbell continues,


To expect too much compassion from yourself might be a little destructive of your own existence. Even so, at least make a try, and this goes not only for individuals but also for life itself. It’s so easy. It’s a fashionable idiocy of youth to say the world has not come up to your expectations. ‘What? I was coming, and this is all they could prepare for me?’ Throw it out. Have compassion for the world and those in it. Not only political life but all life stinks, and you must embrace that with compassion. (103)


When tempted to go into the dangerous realms of ‘fair and unfair’ regarding what life brings our way, we’d be wise to consult Job 38:1-7.


Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the cornerstone thereof? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? 


What may we take from this? Perhaps we could say that in the final analysis, the universal cosmos is inscrutable and that we can never really know its deepest workings. But despite this, we’re called upon to engage with the world—and ourselves—with courage and compassion.


While most of us have long given up the misguided notion that our individual thinking is the measure for the universe, and that its sole mandate is to revolve around us and our egotistical pursuits, have we actually realized the absurdity of this? The above-mentioned narrative within the Book of Job serves to remind our sometimes haughty left brains of their rightful place, i.e. “Where were you, left brain, when the stars were put into place and when the laws of creation were propelled into motion?” And, more generally, do we contemplate this question from a genuine position of humility?


Far too often we demand that the sun always shines on us, and only us, as if we are the center of special privilege. How utterly misconceived! Could it be that we are prone to build an identity that gives shelter to self-inflated pride because we can’t summon the courage to face our own imperfections?


On the topic of the novel Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann, Campbell writes these words about the protagonist: 


Tonio is a young man who is stuck between two worlds: the world of unimaginative doers that he was born into and the world of intellectual bohemian critics with whom he has been wandering. He ultimately discovers that anybody who is in the world is imperfect, and that imperfection is what keeps the person here. He realizes that nothing alive fits the ideal. If you are going to describe a person as an artist, you must describe the person with ruthless objectivity. It is the imperfections that identify them. It is the imperfections that ask for our love.  (104) 


All human beings have challenges, meet obstacles, suffer betrayals, humiliations, and disappointments. These we are obliged to bear. Self-compassion also means encompassing such things because in the wider embrace of compassion, everything gets to be included. But many of us fail to develop a gentle rapport with ourselves. Too often we’re a tiger to our own gazelle. In this we can become a danger to ourselves, forgetting that together we are all on the same team: the team of humanity. In this sense, humanity is one collective “we” and it operates across various levels of human awareness. Or, put in a more poetic way, an aspect of divinity exists in all our friends, enemies, interactions… and within us, residing at the seat of our soul.  


For the sacred is truly in everything. We bear an archetypal human divinity within us, although it can sometimes feel barely emergent. It’s what I sense Campbell is getting at here by discussing participatory companionship. 


The thing that turns what Mann calls a litterateur—that’s a person who writes for a New York magazine, say—into a poet or an artist, a person who can give humanity the images to help it live, is that the artist recognizes the imperfections around him with compassion. The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to—as well as to demand of—the world. (105)


It’s our fidelity to compassion in a difficult situation that enables that situation to be transmuted. In this way, our wounds often make us more of a person, not less. Lamenting and bemoaning why something happened the way it did only further removes us from the imperfections (personal and worldly) that require our recognition and love. Despite its many possible causes, in the end, the situation happened because it did, and we can’t always find a reason why. At some stage we must simply accept the fact of this. By incessantly questioning, “Why?” we circle up within our heads believing that the universe somehow made a mistake.


 Meeting reality—even if our process of meeting it is far from perfect—is really the only effective thing that we can do. Believing that nothing in this world is good enough is a staid condition for the soul. In so believing, we’re implying that we’d rather suffer than accept and encompass what presents itself to us. When we remove our self-reproaching judgments, we also help to promote the virtues of acceptance and forgiveness as universal precepts. It’s a universal act of humility that we make when we remove disabling judgements. In and of itself, the very changing of our self-perception can then become a compassionate deed for the world.  


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