It’s something that seems to be happening more and more these days. Maybe it’s happened to you. It certainly has to me a few times. You’re having a conversation with someone, maybe even someone you know quite well, and everything’s going along fine until suddenly, out of the blue, they say something so uncharacteristically hateful that you’re absolutely floored. Flabbergasted. Shocked and at a loss for words.
It’s not directed towards you, of course. After all, this person is perfectly polite and seemingly decent. It could be about a foreign country, people of a specific sexual orientation, a celebrity, a certain race, another religion, a politician, some socioeconomic group, or any other number of people. The subject doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the targeted individual or group, the person says something so biased, so ignorant, and so heartless that you just can’t believe that it came out of the mouth of someone you thought you respected.
It hurts. It’s jarring in a way that’s difficult to describe. It almost feels like the person reared back and punched you in the stomach, but they didn’t. There they are, standing there, looking normal as ever. Acting like they didn’t just say the most abhorrent thing you’ve heard in recent memory. And it makes you wonder, “How could a person who seems so decent and kind be this misguided and hateful in this one area?”
These experiences are painful because they induce cognitive dissonance. There’s a disconnect between what we expect from reality and what we actually experience. When we know someone to be a good person most of the time, we expect them to be a good person all of the time. And let’s be honest: It’s usually those we consider the best who let us down the most. When they act in a way that isn’t fitting for a good person, it messes with our heads in a big way.
Really, it comes down to this: We struggle to understand how the same person can be both compassionate and hateful, how they can have such light and darkness inside of them at the same time. When we see it out in the world, it horrifies us. But have we ever stopped to consider that maybe this dichotomy between love and hatred exists in all of us?
I’ve found that the more I commit myself to practicing compassion, the more I recognize the darkness inside of me. As I seek to expand my love for others to include more and more people, I run into problem areas where my more primitive side fights back against my desire to show compassion. It’s easy to show love to those close to me, and even to strangers, but what about the people I hate? What about the people I disagree with? What about the people who I feel like are making the world a significantly worse place for everyone else? The truth is that I’m not always faithful to show compassion to them.
From time to time, I find myself surprised and horrified by my own capacity for hatefulness. Especially in our current political climate, it is far too easy to demonize other people, decide that they aren’t worth our consideration, and dismiss them as worthless. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and I’ve had to repent of some of the things I’ve said about others. It’s not that my disagreement with them changes; it’s that I choose to recognize them as people, even if they are bad people, and show them the consideration every person deserves.
Compassion is a wonderful thing, and we’re all called to practice it. But if we ever feel like we’ve fully mastered it, then we’ve actually fallen into the trap of self-righteousness, and we’re destined for a fall. We can’t let our compassion lead us to become complacent or judgmental of those who aren’t compassionate. The truth is that we each have the capacity for darkness inside of us. We can all do better. And so we’re each called to wake up every morning and decide to love others a little bit better today than we did yesterday. If we aren’t actively working to improve, then we’re allowing hate to creep back in.
And if we aren’t careful, we may one day find ourselves looking in the face of a horrified friend as they see the darkness inside of us reflected in something that we’ve said or done. I’m committing myself to do the work to ensure that something like that never happens again, and my encouragement to you this week is that you’ll make that commitment, too. We can all do better at practicing compassion. Will you do what it takes?