Wednesday, May 23, 2007

High Compassion

Today, in a moment of self-absorption, I was thinking about what I would say if I were in some group situation, like a corporate conference or the first day of graduate school or some writing class and some group leader wanted everyone to name his or her greatest weaknesses. At the corporate conference, some douche-bag would probably say he was too much of a perfectionist and some witty, half-sexy lady would say "chocolate." And if it were graduate school, half the people would name something they thought was clever ("space and time") or slightly obscure ("Kraut Rock"). There would definitely be some girl who loves tea who tried to be clever ("the semicolon!") but then everyone who wasn't a complete asshole would kind of feel sorry for her. The other half of the grad school folks would be all witty and might even make you laugh and feel slightly intimidated: "my greatest weakness is gravity."

So this evening while I was driving in downtown San Francisco, I was just thinking about how I must be mildly retarded because I was fantasizing about how badly I would love to be able to say "I'm self-righteous and I talk like a 14-year-old girl in an internet chat room" (OMG, R U Serious!?!?).

Self-righteousness is integrity and compassion gone too far. It's idealizing a way of being right in the world so intently that ends up placing more emphasis on that than on the "beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh" who inhabit it [1]. In the New Testament, the Pharisees were so concerned with how Jesus didn't conform to what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be like that they couldn't see that he was him. It's different than being judgemental. It's wanting so much for the world to be full goodness that you are intolerant of people when they don't conform to how you feel you would act. It's some Mormons, it's some punks.

There's a fine line between having integrity and being self-righteous. I never knew this existed until today, when I thought about the poem "A Broken Appointment" by Thomas Hardy while I was driving. It's a poem about a man being stood up by a woman. What makes him sad isn't so much that she didn't show up, but that he realized that she didn't have enough character to show up and be kind, even if she didn't love him.

A Broken Appointment

You did not come,
and marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindess' sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.

You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
--I know and knew it. But unto the store
Of deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
You love not me?


In the third line of the second stanza Hardy says, "I know and knew it." What does "it" refer to? Is he saying he knew when he invited her that only love could "lend [her] loyalty" (i.e. that only if she loved him would she show up)? Or is he saying that he knew when he invited her that she didn't love him?

When you read it the first way, Hardy seems like he's testing her. Or like he's a martyr. This way is self-righteous. He creates a situation knowing that she will disappoint him and give him a reason to re-impose his view of the world on everyone else.

But if you read it the second way, that he invites her knowing that she doesn't love him, just to be with her, not expecting anything from her, then she is a fool to not show up.

And depending on how you're feeling at a certain hour of any day, either interpretation holds up. I think.


[1] That quote is from Walt Whitman "Children of Adam" in Leaves of Grass. Dear Lord, go read it. It's lovely!

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