Motherhood as roadmap to universal compassion

by DT Strain


Practicing compassion for our worst enemies is advanced contemplative practice, and not something one should expect most people to be capable of without careful education. Without such teachings, many may even misinterpret such a thing as immoral, unwise, or ridiculous.

An article by Kate Shellnut recently made me think about how difficult it is to have compassion for wrongdoers. She quoted Zen blogger noting of Osama bin Laden (OBL): “It’s really hard, even for this Buddhist writing these lines and who is committed to the Bodhisattva vows, to feel much compassion for the man.”

Of course, the following in no way suggests any portion of the ‘share’ of our compassion be diverted from victims to the likes of OBL. However, I wanted to share one method I’ve noticed as effective for imagining how one could have compassion even for the worst of us. This is by imagining how an otherwise normal loving mother might feel toward her child after having learned they did something horrible, or that they are, in fact, a horrible person who has done many inhuman acts.

In many ways the disgust over their behavior is even greater and sadder for the mother than for others. Even a mother, if a good person, will feel sad for victims – perhaps even more so than those who are not related to the perpetrator (even if she fully accepts that their child is responsible for their own choices). Further, that mother will still see that their child needs to be stopped to protect others, and may even see that they need to be punished or even executed. But this will be separate from their love. Thus, we see that love is distinct from its common outward symptoms (actions such as assisting, defending, protecting, etc). It is an inward disposition, and in contemplative practice we recognize the critical importance of inward disposition as a means of cultivating a character with potential to experience a flourishing life.

What heartbreak such a mother will experience, remembering their child in youth, with all the potential of the world before them, having seen their budding love and laughter. How heartbroken would they be to realize that potential had been extinguished, and how crushing would it be to know that – whatever thoughts and feelings their child had – that their experience in life was so dark that it could lead them to think such horrible actions were acceptable.

In fact, it is through our appreciation that OBL is a part of our human family that, like the mother of a murderer, we are drawn to feel even more for his victims – because we see the darkness in OBL is potentially within us, and came out of a world that we all helped to parent. Another reason the ‘mother thought experiment’ helps is because it is important to know how tragic is the life of evil doers, so that we might understand how incrementally poorer are our own lives when we dip into harmful behaviors.

There is a reason God is often painted in a similar family-type relationship as our father. This is how those who believe in a loving God read of his attitudes toward human beings when we are bad. Whether one believes literally in such a being or not, the description provides a road map to how we might begin to experience compassion for all beings without exception.

Once I told my own late mother that I thought our goal should be to think of all people like their mothers think of them. She, knowing better than I the power of a mother’s love, said, “That seems like a pretty difficult thing to do!” Agreed, but it is the endeavor that counts, and while we might be imperfect in reaching our goal, the degree to which we achieve it yields incrementally beneficial results.

Through careful consideration of the points of view of mothers and fathers (earthly or heavenly) we might begin to see that one can be heartbroken for the tragedy that was the life of OBL, and yet how this does not imply even the slightest refraining from pursuing and punishing the wrongdoer or condoning his actions. Nor does this kind of attempt diminish one bit from the compassion we feel for the victims, and may even help to enhance it.