Do equanimity and compassion collide? Equanimity is “evenness of mind, especially under stress.” As mentioned before, compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress and a desire to alleviate it.” (Both according to Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.) When we truly feel others suffering it can affect us profoundly. The profound emotions which arise feed our desire to help those people. Yet, if our emotions remain balanced and stable, even in the face of the almost unbearable suffering of others, what then fuels our desire to help them?
Yesterday evening we watched Blood Diamond, which graphically depicts the atrocities of the civil war and blood diamond trade in Sierra Leon in 1999. Even as horrible as the depictions of the film were, they cannot compare to actual events. Women and children mutilated, raped, and murdered, boys turned into killers, addicted to drugs, others forced to work as slave laborers in the diamond mines, corporate greed, and exploitive journalism.
Yet, I feel nothing. Or something so close to nothing it might be labeled as such, a small sadness, a passing regret, easily displaced by the next moment in my own life. I have struggled with this question my entire life: is this equanimity or apathy?
A friend asked if I ever watched that television show “Intervention.” I told her no, because I was the kind of person who always felt very much in control of her own actions, thoughts, and feelings. I can’t relate to the out of control lifestyles of the people depicted on shows like that. I can understand it intellectually, medically, psychologically, but I cannot relate to it personally and I cannot empathize on any useful level. As a result, when I watch those shows there comes a point in time where I just want to yell “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?” Yet I know that urge comes from an entirely mistaken view on my own part. That is what’s wrong with me.
The same is true of movies like Blood Diamond. I have lived a good life, a safe life, for which I am thankful. I have no basis for the “sympathetic consciousness” which can give rise to a strong desire to alleviate suffering. My compassion is entirely intellectually based. Being an intellectual person, that is more than enough to drive me to takes some action, but is it enough to truly give as much as I could?
Marilyn’s death gave me a greater sense of compassion than any other event in my life. I am aware of the suffering of terminal illness, the pain of cancer, the mind numbing effects of drugs, the grief of loosing a friend, a mother. I can feel that deeply in my heart the way I have felt little else. And I can feel deeply for those people who experience similar situations in their lives.
Is my equanimity then a product of my experience, an inborn part of my nature, or is it merely apathy in disguise?