On Cultivating Compassion

The conquerors / invade the narrative / n just mow / the whole thing -- Tommy Pico

I've been thinking a lot lately about compassion. About the ways we show it. To others. To ourselves. Who we share it with. How others reveal they have it.

It has often felt, to me, as though some believe they have been given just a finite amount, compassion a precious metal too valuable to part with. Too rare to even afford to themselves.

We talk about how tough people are, how resilient, but compassion, which lies within each of us, is thought of as unique, a rarity. In Western cultures, we consider it learned, not innate, an attribute reserved in the Christian tradition for saints. Showing gentleness—with ourselves, with others—is not seen as a strength.

We learn, often, to hide our compassion for fear of exposing vulnerability in a world that does not value softness. We become selective in how we share that compassion; we grow afraid to dole it out, fear that there will be a drought once we've used up our limited amounts. We hold onto it tight; what if we need it later.

Instead, we could consider it the limitless, infinite gift that it is. We could view it as something that can only multiply if we simply shared it. How much would change if we shifted to that perspective?


The Museum Rietberg in Zurich. Three villas, a glass-enshrined foyer connecting them. In the gardens surrounding the museum, a view overlooking Lake Zurich: Its deep blue stretches for miles, its shores bookended on one side by the city center, on the other by a low mountain range.

I've come to the museum because of its location. In Zurich, even a chocolate truffle is beyond my budget. I am there, at the Museum Rietberg, to take in its views, stroll its gardens. Inside it is an homage to colonial mentality: All moody, dark-colored walls, glass cases, and tiny lamps to spotlight decorative objects for inspection, details of each piece's exceptionalism carefully explained.

The museums in Zurich hold disclaimers on the pieces' origins. This is new, a response to discussions about looting and heritage. They explain, in as few words as possible, how it's come to be that a museum in Europe is in possession of these spoils, as though visitors are unaware of the centuries of excavation and exploitation of these foreign places the objects represent. We have done no harm, they say on their placards. These things are rightfully ours; here, they are on display for your edification.

It is a step, a baby one, toward greater compassion for those impacted by hundreds of years of colonialism. The path to greater compassion, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, comes from listening, and these notices show the museum has been listening, at least a bit, quietly. Is it enough? I am skeptical. Not because of this museum particularly, or its attempts at amends. More as a critique of the museum as a holding space.

What meaning do these museum objects hold for visitors? What does it bring us to view, from a distance, the sculptures of deities from other religions that are imprisoned in a vitrine? What are we learning about the worlds these objects represent when we see them here, removed from their original context, placed in one familiar to us, the viewers? Perhaps that is the answer. In viewing these objects as museum pieces, we are positioning ourselves in relation to them, in relation to the greater world, centering ourselves in that space. The question becomes less what are we learning from these things in this place and more: What are we learning about ourselves when we visit museums, take these pieces in?

For as much as we like to consider our cultural intake as something done for the betterment of society (we are better, more empathetic people for having viewed art, read books, listened to symphonies!), truly the relationships we have (or don't) with culture are based in pure selfishness. We enter museums not because we can offer them something, but rather we are in search of what we can take away. Always ravenous for answers, our visits a searching for a reflection. Of ourselves. Of our lives.

As I walk through the Museum Rietberg's wide open-floored villa, its air perfectly temperature-controlled despite the heat outside, I scan the rows of objects, on a quest for greater meaning. Which of these objects will hold some message for me today?

I do this a lot when I am feeling at a loss. View art as a maker of meaning when the world feels meaningless. I do it when my mind looks like this Tommy Pico poem from his book, IRL:

I look up at blinking string lights
crisscrossing the sky wtf r u DOING
with yr life? Less
Mary Oliver and more Mary
Magdalene, in that language
is a garden tended by succeeding
generations Flowers watered,
weeds pulled But words
change n rules change How
“hate” was pronounced more
like “hot” Really seething
I mean seeing something adds
to its poetry The conquerors
invade the narrative n just mow
the whole thing My colonial mind
So that I’m at this party shoutin
over (ugh) dub step abt Mary
Magdalene n historical
revisionism I heard on this
comedy podcast instead of the
changing nature of Frog
in Kumeyaay trickster stories
bc they’re gone n I never learned
them Mary in the sense that
u live yr life n after u die, writing
lives on—says whatever
it wants about you. Like
leaving a party alone and
catching the train n rem-
ember every dumb ass thing
u said?

My mind a jumble, a mess of shame.

And there, in front of me, is her. Guanyin, The Bodhisattva of Compassion. A tiny, slender thing. Upon a low pedestal, her back to a black wall. Raising a hand, lips pursed, her posture a message of welcoming, of forgetting. Nearby, Edo masks taunt, their looks manifesting the anger and shock of the demons they've captured in stone.

But Guanyin is the face of calm. Of knowing. Reminding me that I, like she, is far from home. That we are displaced. And that though there are frightening things all around, there is compassion in spades. Inside of us, if we let it be. Outside of us, if only we look hard enough to see.