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Sticks and stones: The virtue of compassion

"Compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.” -Pema ChodronI just finished reading Rush Limbaugh’s apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a “slut.” She is the law student who recently attempted to advocate for affordable health care coverage of contraception, he is the bombastic talk-show host who blew an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about an important issue.I’m glad he apologized, even if it was probably motivated by fleeing sponsors and growing public outrage. I wish ALL public figures, regardless of political affiliation, were held equally accountable for using hurtful, abusive, demeaning language (I’m thinking now of Bill Maher, who sits at the other end of the political spectrum and is equally reckless in his verbal tirades).Being intentionally hurtful is not a political issue, it’s a human issue. Words matter. The average adult speaks 16,000 of them each and every day. Sixteen thousand! That’s a lot of talking, and a lot of communicating…and the two are not the same. We speak the words, and we hear the words, but do we attend to the messages carried by the words; messages that build up, or tear down. And are we aware of how our words impact the world around us. One doesn’t need to have a radio or television show to feed a culture of cruelty or nurture a culture of compassion.Compassion, literally translated, means “to suffer with.” Compassion as a virtue means that one suffers with, and then does something meaningful about trying to alleviate the suffering of another. And choosing care-fully the words we use every day to describe others, express our thoughts and feelings to others, and work toward understanding others is a very good place to start practicing compassion. Because we cannot, will not, begin to meaningfully care about others if we are using words that distance ourselves from them…and from ourselves. The natural response when we sense the pain of another is to try and help. But this will only happen if our own anger, grief, guilt, and shame hasn’t backed up on us.To be compassionate, to get close to another’s pain, we must also be addressing our own pain. People who attack with words are aware (just enough) of how much hurt is inside them to be scared witless. And out of fear they choose hurtful words to gain a false sense of control, of power, of superiority. All it costs is decency.“Compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.”“Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” What a terrible, dangerous denial of reality that little rhyme is. Words used as weapons absolutely hurt you and me, and they hurt our culture. And if we aren’t willing to control what comes out of our mouths, we won’t be able to offer much from our hearts.  -Ross Porter, Ph.D.Questions for reflection: How have you used words to hurt? Who models the virtue of compassion for you? How? What is one thing you can begin doing to practice the virtue of compassion?

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