Verified vs. Unverified Compassion and Anger

I hope this newsletter finds you well in your world. I am in the midst of a “sandwich retreat,” which is bringing the experience of retreat into daily life. I attended a daylong retreat last weekend, I returned to retreat Monday-Friday in the early morning and again in the evening, and tomorrow I end our time together with another daylong retreat. I have never done anything like this. I usually check out of daily life and responsibilities to attend a retreat, and it has been a fascinating experience to both be on retreat and to live my daily life at the same time.

One of the things I experience on retreat is a deep connectedness to others. My compassion grows exponentially, and I have a tendency to fall in love with the people I encounter and hold those who do harm with tenderness and compassion for the struggle that is at the root of their acting out. I even found myself having compassion for Sean Spicer this week, a remarkable shift, after struggling to locate compassion for any of the current political administration. In all honesty, I had an aversion to the compassion and connection I was feeling though.

In the last two years I have woken up to the ways that my compassion has not served me. Compassion kept me silent when I could have used my voice to disrupt harm. Compassion allowed me to let people off the hook because, “they are suffering” or “they are just on their journey” or “I should focus on what I agree with,” etc. Compassion made me turn away from suffering because it was too painful to look at. I am coming to think of this deluded form of compassion as ‘unverified compassion’. One concept we talked about on retreat this week was faith. The teachers distinguished between ‘blind faith’ and ‘verified faith.’ I don’t love using the term blind though, as it serves as an ableist way of describing an unconscious process, so I will use the term unverified instead. Unverified faith is believing in something without understanding why, and this kind of faith can be unquestioning. Verified faith is when we examine, question and challenge the teachings so we know them personally and intimately. We know we have faith in something not because someone told us we should but because we have struggled and grappled with it ourselves. 

The last two years have also been about reclaiming anger, and just as I became attached to compassion I also became very attached to anger. Anger served me by giving me the energy to speak up, to have a more critical analysis of the world around me, and to use this energy to turn towards the pain of the world. But I knew it wasn’t ‘verified’. Many times my experience with anger helped to reassure me that I was ‘right’ and ‘they’ were wrong. Other times I stopped listening to the people in front of me because anger flooded my system and I could no longer process what was happening around me. Some nights my body was so activated by my anger that I could not sleep. 

Even though there are many ways that my anger does not serve me, when I felt a strong pull of compassion start to return to me, I freaked out. I wanted to push it away. In the past my unverified compassion kept me unconscious about the harm I was doing in the world with the privileges I have. I was afraid I was going to lose my anger and return to the dismissive narrative of ‘it’s all good’. 

I know intellectually this fear is not true. I can not go back to who I was three years ago. I want to be compassionate, and I also want to be active. I want to integrate the two, and I believe the integration of anger and compassion can be a powerful force in the world. 

As compassion started to return I noticed myself grasping for the comfort of my anger and my righteousness. A dear friend asked me what my wise self had to say about this conflict between compassion and anger. Once I stopped to pay attention, my wise self told me I had to strengthen my anger muscle for the last couple years because it was so undeveloped. My anger  is important because it helps me access my passion and the fire for compassionate, fierce action. My compassion muscle is strong, and it needed to take a back seat for a season so it could learn to be in partnership with other parts of me. My anger and my compassion are in the early stages of dialogue. I am attempting to have faith in the process as these two parts of myself learn from each other and hopefully, become a little more verified.