In counseling we teach that we cannot change others, but we can improve our relations by changing ourselves. This is usually expressed in terms of building healthy boundaries, but I believe we can cultivate compassionate relationships by exercising compassion AND healthy boundaries.
It gets complicated when we want others to be more “like us.” In counseling we call that triangulation – bringing in a third party rather than dealing directly with another person. That creates difficulties when conservative factions triangulate to what they consider “principles” (You should have more principles!) and liberal factions triangulate to what they consider “caring for others” (You should have more empathy!)
Maybe when we triangulate we are expressing frustration with our own limitations as human beings. “I’m not good enough on my own – you should be good too, then maybe things will get better!” “I’m not helpful enough on my own – you should contribute more, then maybe things will get better!”
As a counselor, my advice to both parties would probably be to work on building and maintaining healthy boundaries. By over-identifying with “principle” a person can feel burdened by the sin of their own inherent humanity – unrighteousness. And by over-identifying with “caring for others”, a person can become burdened by the sin of own inherent humanity – vulnerability and need to care for self.
So the question remains – can we forgive and have compassion for each other? Can we recognize and have compassion for “those who suffer for righteousness sake”, even when they triangulate their frustrations toward others? Can we recognize and have compassion for “those who suffer on behalf of others”, even when they triangulate their frustrations toward others?
This is the root of compassion – appreciating the suffering that the other endures. And it is easy, very easy, to recognize suffering, because for the most part the sources of suffering are projected onto others. In the US, just watch Fox or MSNBC news for a few minutes, and every time someone says “should”, translate the phrase into “I wish I could”. “Obama should build a wall to protect us” turns into “I wish I could build a wall.” “Boehner should help undocumented workers” turns into “I wish I could help undocumented workers.” Every time someone says “should” they express their own suffering, which presents an opportunity to increase compassion.
Of course, compassion and safe boundaries need to go hand in hand. This is part of what is unique about the compassion meditation process described in the book “Christian Tantric Meditation Guide.” In some compassion meditation protocols questions about abuse are greeted with either silence or “just be more compassionate.” If we are going to practice compassion for our enemies, we need to do so from a safe distance.
What are the benefits of compassion? When we develop self awareness and compassion – toward ourselves, our loved ones, our enemies, and universally, when someone looks us in the eye and says “you’re not good enough!” which we may interpret in each our own way – instead of being defensive and resentful, from a safe and respectful distance we can smile back and say “I’m human, and that’s OK. Have a blessed day!”