Empathy and Compassion

Empathy & Compassion: The Keys to Letting Go

Recently, my mom went on a trip to New York to visit my brother and his wife. When she returned, she excitedly gave me a gift. She happens to be an incredible gift giver, and this one was no exception.

It was a book, with fine binding and gilded edges, a nice printing of the novel Moby Dick.

[Quick Disclaimer: I know many people people consider Moby Dick to be really dull, and I don't necessarily disagree with anyone's criticisms there — I just happen to love the book, as much for nostalgia as for its message. But yeah, it's a labor of love.]

Although I had a digital copy, I haven't ever owned a physical copy. Every one I had growing up was checked out of the library (and no matter what that library says in their system — I returned them!).

So, here I was with a gorgeous printing of the book. I realized that it would be great on my living room coffee table as a nice decoration, a commemoration of the great gift, and a fervent reminder of its message; one that becomes more and more relevant as I get older.

That message helps me whenever I need to dig deep and realize that my frustrations and disappointments have taken up too much of the focus in my life. I become too uncompromising. So rigid that I'm about to break.

It's then that I realize I need this book the most.

The White Whale

Moby Dick tells the story of a man ("call me Ishmael") getting bored with his life and going to sea. When it comes to "going to sea," he happens to pick the most dangerous version. As in, the author goes to great detail in explaining just how deadly the occupation of whaling was at the time. Our protagonist doesn't opt for simple.

The captain of his vessel, a man named Ahab, has a vendetta against a particularly large, particularly white whale that he says is responsible for losing his leg and some former crew (mentioning nothing to the fact that the whale is being hunted by Ahab, so...self defense?).

Ahab has gone off the deep end, and truly believes the whale is a physical manifestation of evil.

He puts a bounty on the whale — the first one to just spot it gets paid. Big time.

Spoilers Ahead

They find the whale. They chase the whale. Then, the whale kills Ahab in a ghastly fashion, destroys their ship completely, and everyone except for Ishmael dies.

At the very end, Ishmael is holding onto a piece of driftwood out in the middle of the ocean. We're reading the tale, so, he gets rescued somehow. Maybe. But the ending is desolate to say the least.

Way to bring us down...

Yeah, I'm sorry about that. But I promise you, this will get uplifting soon!

People use Captain Ahab as a cautionary tale, to the point where we take the lesson for granted. Somehow, things get caught up in our lives that we don't realize we're attached to until it's too late.

It could be casual disdain for someone in our lives. It could be anger at a partner or ex-partner for a problem from a long time ago. It could even be frustration at that person at the gym who never re-racks their weights.

Even if it's unpleasant, it's still an attachment. Sometimes, because it's so unpleasant, we can't help but feel attached. It becomes something we cling to without really understanding why.

It gets in the way of our relationships. It diminishes us.

You said this would get uplifting soon.

Yes! The uplifting part is a bit harder to grasp, though. And for it, we need one unequivocal message from Moby Dick: Ahab's attachment to his hatred destroyed him, his ship, and his crew.

The things in his life that were most dear to him were obliterated heinously in a matter of moments. All because he had to have his vengeance.

And herein lies the lesson. We will almost never get the satisfaction that we want out of our situation.

At some point, you just have to let go.

Now The Uplifting Part

The beauty that comes along with letting go is unlike any other burden being lifted. With the bright light at the end of the tunnel, you can begin to move past the negative attachment.

It takes work, but it's easier work than you think. It just takes repetition and vigilance.

There are many practices that can help with the process of letting go, things like mindfulness, prayer, yoga, and many others. The key is finding what helps you best to offload your burden without simply dumping it on someone else.

Defending Ourselves Up Front

Addressing our negative attachments is a great start. It can also be helpful to put together a plan for being mindful and in the present when possible triggers happen.

Things like getting cut off in traffic, or when a person at the gym is particularly rude or inconsiderate. We cannot change other people — we can only change how we respond to other people.

As such, challenge yourself to find positive attributes to challenge the negative ones. Even if you have to reach ("they're trying harder than they normally do," "everyone has something they're dealing with," etc).

This is not trying to make excuses for the person's actions, rather this is trying to create a point of empathy and compassion.

Empathy and compassion are great points of positive engagement. You do not have to like a person to have compassion for them. And sometimes, even through something like pity, we can find empathy and compassion where we didn't think it was possible before.

And that's what a nice printing of Moby Dick can show me every day, just resting in its beautiful binding on the coffee table.

One of my personal favorite practices for dealing with negative attachments is loving-kindness mindfulness exercises like this one from Headspace (no, there's no affiliate percent or anything like that, this is just here in case you would like to try something that's worked well for me).

But whatever your challenge, whatever your path, every so often, take some time to reflect on yourself. Ask the question, what am I holding onto? How is negative attachment getting in my way as a person, as a parent, as a professional?

Finding compassion for both ourselves and others will lead to more satisfaction in our lives. And it will help us let go of the things that weigh us down so that we can grow to be the people we're meant to be.




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