The Dynamics of Compassion

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The Dynamics of Compassion

"What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind words." (Photo: Jessica Lucia/flickr/cc)


It’s too easy to reduce acts of kindness to an “aw, isn’t that nice?” sort of irrelevance. What if we thought about them, instead, as templates for foreign policy?

For one thing, if we did, there would be no such thing as “foreign” policy — no segregation of most of humanity behind borders and labels, to be controlled and, most of all, feared. There would only be getting-to-know-you policy, not in a simplistic sense but with a deep and courageous curiosity . . . because our survival depends on it.

Another way to say this is: War doesn’t work. Bombing ISIS doesn’t work. Closing our border to Syrians — or Mexicans — doesn’t work. Yet “we,” by which I mean the whole world, or at least its community of nation states and terrorists (a single entity, as far as I can tell), go back to this suicidal behavior again and again and again. “France is at war.” We greet terror with revenge. It accomplishes nothing except to make matters worse — infinitely worse — but somehow it feels right at the time, so we keep doing it.

Why are we violent but not illiterate?

I ask this question all the time. It was originally posed some years ago by Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy. The answer is obvious, of course. We’re taught to read; originally, we taught ourselves to read. We invented written language. The human species is now in the process of inventing something just as crucial: how to love itself, how to engage with itself nonviolently. We’ve been organized for far too long in a state of only partial connection, relying on the presence of enemies to stay in solidarity with our neighbors. We’ve expended, especially in recent millennia, far more of our intelligence and treasure on the means to fortify ourselves from — and kill — the enemy than we have, perhaps, on anything else. Think nuclear weapons.

Of this I am certain: The human transition to nonviolence will not happen from the top down. The surreally farcical 2016 GOP presidential race makes this clear. The official reaction to every conceivable threat, real and imagined, is to throw more violence at it, to pound it out of existence. And the official discussion that accompanies such action never dares to question violence itself, almost as though violence and cowardice have a nearly unbreakable link.

But change is coming up from the human roots. It’s time to begin noticing it.

Last week I wrote: “Please write and tell me about how personal acts of compassion and connection have resolved conflicts and created understanding. I’ll devote future columns to such stories. Tell me how sovereign people are changing the world — not through hate but through the courage of love.”

I plan to devote future columns to the complex phenomenon of compassionate connection. The goal is not to simplify or “nice-ify” the world, as the cynics would dismiss such a project, but to help open up our awareness of the dynamics of compassion and, most importantly, ask how we can employ these dynamics at every level of human interaction, including geopolitically.

The point is, bitterness, hatred and violence — which always add up to dehumanization — make matters worse, whether the conflict is between individuals, tribes (street gangs) or nations. How can we address conflict at every one of these levels in a way that solidifies understanding and strengthens rather than shatters relationships? How can we avoid killing our enemy and reaping — as we always must — the horrific consequences?

I’ve received some beautiful, stunning stories in response to last week’s column. Let me begin on a Tokyo commuter train, as a belligerent drunk guy steps into the car and scares the hell out of his fellow passengers.

The story, told by the late Terry Dobson and posted at the Eastern Healing Arts website, was referred to me by correspondent Blair Gelbond. Dobson, at the time of the event he described, was a young student of the peaceful martial art of Aikido. He himself, however, had not embraced peace. He was riding through suburban Tokyo when the obscenity-spouting drunk revved up his heroic adrenalin.

“I felt both tough and holy,” Dobson wrote. “In my heart of hearts . . . I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.”

He stood up and confronted the drunk, ready to save humanity. “I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of piss-ant nastiness I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move first. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got the more certain my victory.”

Dobson blew the drunk a sarcastic kiss and the fight was about to start for real when, suddenly, from a corner of the car, an elderly man called out a joyous “Hey!” and drew the drunk’s attention. With remarkable skill, he coaxed the troublemaker into a conversation while Dobson stood in amazement, listening. By the time the train reached Dobson’s stop, the compassionately attentive listener had calmed the drunk and learned of the death of his wife. “Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob,” he wrote.

“What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind words,” Dobson added. It was a teaching moment that changed his life.

What pulls my attention is the old man’s enormous skill, or “peace literacy,” you might say. Compassionate self-defense, like violent self-defense, reaps consequences, but consider the differences. When truth rather than blood flows from the encounter, all parties grow as human beings. This ought to be humanity’s starting point: the principle around which we build our global society.

What can handguns or bombs accomplish compared to this? Can we learn the skill of understanding someone who scares or threatens us? Can we invest in the teaching and implementation of such skills? Can we rethink war?

Please continue sending stories of compassionate conflict resolution. We know more than we realize.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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