Compassion in Literature and in Life

cropped-screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-8-16-39-pmNOTE: If you like to read, I must warn you that this post is spoiler-heavy. Tread carefully.

So, there’s this guy who was expelled from school, thinks the whole world is made up of fakes, and tries to lose his virginity to a prostitute. There’s another guy who broke into a house in the middle of the night and killed a family of four, all for a sum of about $50. Then there’s the man who slept with a married woman, and the one who threw a marble table in his wife’s direction in a moment of anger and made plans to assassinate someone. Can’t forget the woman who had someone’s child while married to someone else, or the two men who wanted so desperately to kill their father, or the little girl responsible for the deaths of her sister and her sister’s lover.

These all sound like awful people. Everyone knows prostitution objectifies both partners involved, and that murder is worth no price, and domestic abuse is tragic, and that adultery hurts people. But if your best friend, or your mother, or your spouse committed any of these crimes? Well, that’s different. There’s a story behind that. You know this person, and you know their intentions were good, or that a difficult past led to misguided decisions for them. They aren’t like other people. They are misunderstood.

And that is why the individuals listed above are loved worldwide. Because people, or in this case, readers were allowed insight into their hearts and minds and backgrounds. Since they had the whole picture, many readers had the opportunity to fall in love with The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, despite his expulsion from school and his desperation to lose his virginity. Though many were sickened and disgusted by what he’d done, several also could not help tearing up when reading about Perry Smith’s execution in In Cold Blood, because they knew of Smith’s artistic side, of the part of him that wanted to be human. In The Great Gatsby, the reader accompanies Gatsby in his desperate search for the love of his life, Daisy, and understands his wish to love her despite her marital status. Pierre from War and Peace is no assassin, as his failure to assassinate Napoleon proves, but rather a loveable, bumbling man who cannot decide what he is. Hester Prynne, of The Scarlet Letter, had suffered unhappiness with her faraway husband, and so found comfort in her town’s religious figure. Dmitri and Ivan Fyodorovich, who make up two of the three Brothers Karamazov, grew up with an irresponsible, neglectful father, to the point where he sometimes forgot about his children’s existence when they were very young. Briony of Atonement did not mean to kill her sister or her sister’s lover–she was young and ignorant, and she made a mistake that yielded disastrous consequences, consequences her child’s mind could not understand.

This is how compassion and literature intertwine. These people exist in our everyday lives–people who have committed treachery, but for a reason. People who have erred because they are flawed and human. And I think, most of the time, it is a lot easier to pass judgment on these people, because it is much harder to get to know someone and consider why they would act a certain way. When this easier method of “understanding” someone becomes a habit, it leads to intolerance, which can lead to prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia.

When someone wrongs you or makes you angry, it is much easier to say, “She’s a bitch.” It is much harder to restrain yourself and say, “She’s going through a difficult time” or “she doesn’t know how to talk about her feelings without lashing out” or “this is not about me, it is about her.” But you must. If you’re going to be a compassionate person, you must do the harder thing. Otherwise, a whole string of people are hurting one another because they feel hurt. If someone stops the cycle, the injurious current comes to a standstill, and while that one person may endure more pain because of it, it’s worth putting a stop to hatred.

Now, I’m not saying that understanding someone’s background and frame of mind automatically excuses their behavior. This is certainly not the case. Perry Smith committed a disgusting act by murdering four members of the Clutter family. But I don’t think he is a disgusting person. I don’t think any single person in the world, when considering all the memories, all the nuances, all the quotes and quirks that make up a person, can be boiled down to being simply “disgusting.” Such a limited description is insulting to the human personality’s complexity. Every person is responsible for his or her behavior. I am not saying to search for excuses; I am saying to search for explanations.

For those who have not read In Cold Blood, the remaining members of the Clutter family did not believe Perry Smith should have been executed. Out of everyone in the world, they would have received the least criticism for wishing death upon someone. Their family members had been murdered. They were devastated. But they chose to see Perry as a person instead of a villain in their own self-centered narratives, and so disagreed with his death sentence. They did not say, “It’s fine that he killed our family, he is only human.” Of course it was not fine. But they validated his humanity. They showed almost unbelievable compassion, which I think brings more internal peace than feelings of revenge do.

I realize I may be rambling a bit here, and that this blog entry doesn’t have as clear of a point as my past ones have. I’ve just undergone some experiences lately that have forced me to think about compassion in general, and wanted to write some things down. I’m just asking, please, try not to do the easy thing next time. Someone cut you off in traffic? Okay, you did that to someone yesterday. And even if you didn’t, not everyone is as careful as you on the road. But those who aren’t may be better about punctuality, while you aren’t. Or maybe they’re more environmentally conscientious, when you aren’t. People have strengths and weaknesses. To target another for their weakness in an area where you have strength is bullying, and it isn’t fair.

Be kind. Be loving. Be a fellow member of the human race, and acknowledge one another’s humanity. That’s all.


*Avatar by Charlavail

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