Hard to Be Compassionate Sometimes

a mosaic watercolour portrait of David Foster Wallace, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt

I‘ve argued endlessly that we are simply the products of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, and that hence we’re all doing our ‘best’, and no one is to ‘blame’. Since coming to that conclusion, I think I’ve become a more compassionate person, more equanimous and accepting. And better able to accept the inevitability of the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ecological systems that regulate life on our little planet.

Still, there are many things that annoy me, despite all efforts to see them through this lens. I have little tolerance for reckless, cruel, ‘unfair’, bullying, coercive, controlling, humiliating, abusive, oppressive, murderous and violent behaviour of all kinds; for dishonesty and deceit and propaganda and censorship; for manipulation, exploitation and deprivation; for feelings and actions born of hatred, greed, prejudice, judgement, unreasonable expectations, and jealousy; for ignorance and stupidity; for waste and contamination and destruction; and for incompetence.

That’s a long list of things to get upset about, when it’s all just the universe acting everything out the only way it possibly could!

Try as I may, my brain immediately attempts to attribute these behaviours to something deliberate, wilful, intentional, as if anything could be deliberate in a world with no free will.

Some of these reactions are instinctive, like my reaction (which is fear masked by anger) to dangerous and aggressive drivers. Even now, once the immediate danger has passed, I have a tendency to hold on to the anger for a long time, and even to rehash the event in my mind, and in subsequent conversations. And to ascribe deliberate intent, aimed at me personally, to the behaviours. I can read David Foster Wallace’s What is Water commencement speech a million times, about how that driver might have been on the way to hospital with a sick child or pregnant spouse, and it does me no good.

Likewise I can appreciate that the current wars, sieges, ethnic cleansing, genocides and nuclear brinksmanship (and the press’ blatant dishonesty in reporting about them) stem from centuries of exhaustively, endlessly, and mutually conditioned fear, hate, rage, grief, jealousy, and shame, and recognize that my reaction to them is, more than anything else, about my fear of how they could lead to global warfare producing endless, immense suffering (especially for me and those I care about).

But this self has been conditioned to try to understand such behaviours as a means to identify corrective actions (leading to peace and reconciliation etc). And that conditioning normally ‘understands’ behaviours in terms like cause, blame, provocation, responsibility, mental derangement, or ‘evil’. It is hard to just accept that these horrific behaviours were the inevitable, uncontrollable results of centuries of conditioning of the actors. It’s just too hopeless. We ‘solved’ the problem with Germany, didn’t we? And the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland? How can we ‘fix things’ so that everyone behaves responsibly and respectfully and peacefully and gets along with everyone else?

Well, of course, we cannot. But if all the large and small atrocities (according to each of our individual assessments and judgements) are just the inevitable result of our conditioning, can we at least be compassionate towards all parties, setting aside our judgements and distress about  them?

Could we attempt to piece together, from a study of history, and human nature under extreme and chronic stress, and the limits to growth, and how mental illness affects and debilitates us, combined with an acknowledgement of our complete lack of free will, and from that, learn to accept and not judge these atrocities and their perpetrators?

Not a chance, I think. One could certainly put together a ‘case’ for what (might have) led to these atrocities and how their perpetrators, given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, had no choice but to commit them. But that is not going to relieve the sense of outrage, of righteous indignation, or the fear and anger and grief that learning of or witnessing these atrocities instils.

The most that might be possible is that my instinctive (fear etc) and conditioned (“that’s so unfair!” etc) reactions to learning of or witnessing an outrage gradually become less intense, less enduring, and less likely to result in me contributing some of the same dysfunctional behaviours (eg honking loud and long at an aggressive driver; or calling for revenge against a group that seems clearly to have perpetrated an atrocity).

If I am seemingly not directly and personally affected by the atrocity, I might even be able to say to myself: This awful behaviour was conditioned; isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, acknowledging that there is no way I can really know what led to it, but something did, and it was not ‘pure evil’ or some other simplistic explanation. My judgement of fault, blame, or simple cause is at best useless, and at worst dangerous (to my mental health, if nothing more).

I can, after all, be outraged by awful events even if I hold no one ‘to blame’ for them (eg the driver who gets a sudden heart attack and crashes into a crowd of people). I can say isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, in those situations.

And (sorry, religious folks) this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘forgiveness’. That pretension is all about you saying that you hold someone to blame but don’t hate them anymore. Ugh. If everything is conditioned, there is nothing to ‘forgive’!

While I may be unable to feel any compassion for the perpetrator of a particular atrocity, I can, with some attention and effort, manage to spark and sustain my compassion for all life on earth, and acknowledge my biophilia for those, whether living in endless wonder and delight, or under ghastly oppression and coping with hideous, endless suffering, with whom I share this afflicted little blue planet.

And perhaps sometimes that’s the ‘best’ we struggling, conditioned humans can do, the closest we can come to approaching the grace and equanimity of wild creatures who simply accept what they can’t possibly hope to understand or change. Who witness tragedy with emotions probably profounder than our own, but without judgement. Who perhaps demonstrate an ‘intelligence’ and a capacity for unconditional love and compassion that seems to elude our large-brained species.

Though that, of course, is not our fault.

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12 Responses to Hard to Be Compassionate Sometimes

  1. Vera says:

    Nifty. Two thoughts. I experience your language as jarring… the way you say things in the style of “this is how it is, cuz I KNOW!”

    Perhaps it would be more amiable toward the reader, and understandable, to preface your writing on this theme by something like… ‘I write as though I am in the possession of certainty (eg there being no free will, and other claims herein), which of course I am not, and never can be’? Or, ‘I write “as if” I believed all this, when in fact I am just trying it on for fit.’ (?)

    And… if there is no self, then how could it have been conditioned? ;-) :-D

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Completely valid criticism. I have tried to become more conditional and tentative in my writing, but sometimes I backslide. Perhaps to some extent my assertions about radical non-duality are attempting to convince myself of their truth.

    As for conditioning, and likewise evolution, they are just stories, attempts to make sense of things. And patterns certainly appear to hold true in a reasonably consistent and even ‘predictable’ way. But they’re still just appearances. That’s the problem with what I have called the ‘limbo’ state. Radical non-duality asserts that there is no such thing as time, but from the limbo state the only way we can make sense of anything is to put it in a story that occurs in time. Can’t have it both ways, but apparently that’s what I’m trying to do.

  3. Brutus says:

    This part is a tautology: “… we are simply the products of our biological and cultural conditioning ….” But this part draws an unwarranted conclusion from the other part: “and that hence we’re all doing our ‘best’, and no one is to ‘blame’.” The next paragraph containing an incomplete list of annoyances (resentments might be better) demonstrates that while the tautology is true, you can’t stick by your own conclusion. For me, the point of seeking understanding, acting ethically, and building and maintaining good moral character is to rise above the circumstances of the moment and exceed my conditioning. Although aspirational and permanently in process, I find it a far better way to live and shape my own experience than to succumb too readily to more base motivations present in all of us.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Brutus: That’s an elegant way of saying that you believe you have free will. I understand that belief — it seems a useful evolutionary advance. Unless you don’t actually have it, in which case it’s just a rationalization. Whatever works.

    I like your term resentments. Rhyd Wildermuth uses the related term ressentiment, a philosophical term from the French, referring to “hostility directed toward an object that one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration; that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration”. I feel ressentiments all the time, as they’re “rational” in the context of my conditioning. But I also recognize, when I really think about it, that they’re misplaced feelings. I don’t think it’s “better” to not have ressentiments; IMO we have no choice in the matter. Our brains are wired from birth to seek and assign causality, and there is no escaping the effects of that wiring.

  5. Vera says:

    “That’s an elegant way of saying that you believe you have free will. I understand that belief — it seems a useful evolutionary advance. Unless you don’t actually have it, in which case it’s just a rationalization. Whatever works.”

    Yeah. Except, there is reality. One or the other is true, deep down in the cosmic sense. Meanwhile, though, since nobody human has a patent on that deep truth, whatever works better in this life is the way to go, I agree.

  6. Steven Kurtz says:

    With you, Dave, on the futility of the blame game to result in positive outcomes. Also with you, Sapolsky, Galen Strawson, Greggory Caruso, and Sabine Hossenfelder (among others re free will. If a non-physical driver is evidenced, a Nobel awaits. Embodied heredity and experience confronts the present, with the result unavoidable. However, complex systems are often unpredictable despite being determined. Too many variables are involved.

  7. realist says:


    “Except, there is reality.”

    Of course there IS “reality” but nobody has a perfect picture of it, only made up representations which have evolutionary value for the individuals who hold it.

    I am even inclined to believe that it is impossible to have an observer independent view of the world at large (no “view from God”, or in modern parlance “Grand Unified Theory”).

  8. Vera says:

    Realist: quite so. :-)

    I just read one of Dave’s posts on Tony Parsons (All there is, is this), and as far as I can tell from the longish quote, the man sounds like an arrogant Knowitall. “I have the Truth! I have the Truth and you don’t!” Arrgh.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Realist: I would say “apparent evolutionary value”. Nature tries lots of things out that seem to work, but in the longer run turn out to be mistakes, or useless. The self and its models of reality might actually be as useful as our appendices. And yes if all there is is indivisible ‘everything’ then there is no separate ‘observer’ and no independent ‘view’ of anything. Everything the self thinks of as real is just the latest consensus theory, a story.

    Vera: Sorry that Tony comes across that way. He and his wife Claire are really sweet people, and Tony would be the first to assert that not only does he know it all, ‘he’ knows nothing because nothing can be known.

    He’s been savagely attacked by lots of ‘non-dual’ charlatans who are selling ‘paths to enlightenment’ and who understandably are threatened by and object to his assertion that there is no path and that there is nothing to ‘buy’.

    He’s also been attacked by religious ‘scholars’ and Buddhist sects accusing him of demeaning their fields of ‘study’ and ‘expertise’, and ridiculing him for saying that years of devout study and adherence to rituals and practices following gurus are no more likely to lead to enlightenment than lying drunk in a bar. (Though he has no problem with spiritual ‘practices’ if they make the practitioners feel better, even if there is no ‘enlightenment’ that can ever be achieved by them or by anyone.)

    Unsurprisingly, as a result, Tony and others delivering this message have developed a bit of a thick skin, and sometimes come across as strident rather than just uncompromising. So many people want to be told how they can ‘realize’ non-duality, and won’t or can’t hear “there is no path to ‘realize nothing appearing as everything’, and no ‘one’ to take any ‘path’ in the first place”. So they have to say it over and over and over again, until the message actually (sometimes) sinks in.

  10. realist says:


    “Nature tries lots of things out that seem to work, but in the longer run turn out to be mistakes, or useless”

    :-D :-D :-D

    No, not at all, Nature does not try to make things that (seem to) work!

    It is YOU who are imagining both the goals and the results from the point of view of an (human) engineer and find it lacking, nature does NOT have “goals” (teleonomy) and thus cannot “fail”.

    What appears to us as complexity and resilience (up to a point) are only statistical artifacts of our OWN observations, best explained as degeneracy versus redudancy.

    Degeneracy and complexity in biological systems

    Nature cannot be “improved” because engineered solutions are much, much more brittle than natural ones, it’s a matter of degrees of freedom, nature toolkit is immensely larger than the engineer toolkit.

  11. Vera says:

    Dave, thank you for a bit of a background. I can only imagine the various scuffles with the guru crowd. I know a bit about the Wilber-ites. Yish.

    You say: “Tony would be the first to assert that not only does he know it all, ‘he’ knows nothing because nothing can be known.”

    I am sure he would. I don’t question his character. I am just wondering why he isn’t embodying it in his presentation. It’s the ol’ “voice from the mountaintop” style…

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Vera — it’s useful for me to ponder these questions, many of which I’ve asked myself over the last few years.

    It is interesting to me how the ‘character’, conditioned over the years and I suppose retained to some extent in the memory, keeps on after the ‘self’ has seemingly dissolved. I think Tony’s character is the result of being born a Brit (I was born in England) — you have to be tough to the point of being cocky or you get ridiculed and bullied by your ‘mates’. And he worked in the building trades. Tim is also a Limey, but he was a teacher and counsellor and as a result his character seems much softer, compassionate in a more accessible way. He dealt with depression in his youth and you can see the marks it’s left. Jim is an American, who married an Austrian and moved there and learned German, then returned. He used to interrupt almost to the point of rudeness, but he’s mellowed — when he was essentially subjected to a hatchet job by the execrable Sam Harris (with his mindless acolytes quick to jump in and add more abuse), he showed his frustration but stuck it out and shrugged it off afterwards (Rita, his ex, was clearly quite distraught at how they treated him).

    All three of them are really kind, gentle guys, though very different in ‘character’. When I asked them why they feel compelled to keep talking about this — telling people there is no ‘you’ and there’s no path to realize that is a tough gig! — their answer is that they think it’s important enough to be worth talking about, not in order to convince anyone, but rather so that those whose selves are apparently eroding or who are caught in what I call ‘limbo’, don’t feel like they’re crazy, or all alone. They have all said “This is not what I was expecting, or looking for. It’s not bliss or ‘enlightenment’. It’s all about the loss of something that never really existed in the first place.”

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