The Moral & Political Ethic of Compassion


I was asked today about my feelings on Iran and, for me, any question of antagonism—whether it’s between nations, people, or any living beings—brings us back to one basic and universal principle. I was listening to Oprah’s interview with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh the other day and, when asked about war, he said the only end to terror is compassion. When we are fought against, the natural animal instinct within us is to fight back, to incite anger. But anger heals nothing; it only creates more of itself, like an oxygenated fire. 

When a child acts out, we often know that he is acting out from feeling like he’s not being heard. Whether it’s because we’re fighting instead of listening to him or because his still-developing brain doesn’t have the vocabulary or clarity to articulate what he wants to say, he is using his behavior—his outburst—to speak for what cannot otherwise be heard. 

And it must be noted that our opinion of whether we’re listening matters less. What matters is his perception: does he feel heard?

The same is true of antagonism between nations: when a nation lashes out, what has driven them to such extremes? To risk one’s own life or open one’s country to devastating retaliation, retaliation that may destroy rich and fertile lands, homes, families, lives, cannot conceivably be anyone’s first choice. No, such extreme measures must only arise when, rightly so or not, we feel utterly and inescapably unheard. Debilitating acts of violence must only see the light of day when the experience of the actor, the perpetrator of that violence, feels tremendously disconnected.

So we must make our moral and political ethic one of deep and compassionate listening. And not until we listen fully, until we take the time for the other—nation, person, living being—to feel heard can we suggest any new course of action. 

To achieve peace, we must act with peace. There is no other elixir.

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