Rumi, I'm told four beers deep and sinking fast, wrote a lot about what he called 'the Open Secret', which (as I understood it) is the tendency for an individual to feel that he or she is the most wretched, miserable creature on the planet, and everyone else is just groovy. But I never really read much Rumi; I only heard about him through others. Much in the same way I judge a book by its readers, I'm inclined to like Rumi because I like those who like Rumi.
But no matter how much I like this idea, I never really felt comfortable with it. I mean, I have my existential angst and twenty-something turmoil (and credible sources inform me it gets worse from here), but even when I realized that every one of my friends is going through the same thing, I still don't feel like that weight is lifted from my shoulders. It just means I can't bitch too much to my friends, since they probably can one-up my suffering There's always someone worse-off, and frankly, you can only mutter 'there but for the grace of God' so many times before it becomes a dead mantra.
So I'm thinking a lot these days about how to make compassion work in a world where takers gladly fuck over givers. This started a few months ago, when we let a neighbor of ours crash on the couch. He, like so many other life-long residents of this particular neighborhood, was caught up in a cycle of suffering unmitigated by perspective, because he had no outside perspective to compare his own with --- I mean, you can't exactly pick up a volume of Alan Watts if you're functionally illiterate.
(I have not read Rumi. I have, however, read a lot of Alan Watts, and I still prefer Rumi)
At first, we tried helping him: we tried teaching him to read, we helped him find a job, we were patient with him. But it wound up shredding the cohesion of the house, and all because we confused compassion with enablement. So he got comfortable. Him sleeping on the couch was to last for only a week or so. A week became two, and two multiplied into a month, and a month became two and a half. This drained us dry. We felt pretty suckered at the end of all this, and dealing with him just about did it for compassion for me for a while.
We all learned something, and I misunderstood this lesson from the universe. I can't speak for everyone else, but I let myself stop giving a shit for a while, especially because I've got a history of self-abnegation and letting other people walk all over me. I couldn't muster up the courage to be compassionate, because I thought all it would ever lead to was another situation where I'd be in a position to be exploited. I mistook compassion for gullible enablement, and I mistook integrity for callousness.
I think that's the secret that the Rumi of my drinking buddies might be hinting at: even though you may be suffering, there's always someone else immeasurably worse-off than you. This does not mean that you are no less worthy of compassion than another. This does not mean your suffering over having no shoes is meaningless when compared with that of someone with no feet --- in fact, that's precisely what makes it meaningful. Realizing this won't make you any happier, in the same sense that watching a pot won't make it boil any faster.
And one more thing: in a world full of exploiters, compassion is toothless without equanimity. You can't understand another's problems without understanding your own, and more importantly, everyone else's. Being fucked over is not a failure --- it's a hint that there will always be people who use their suffering to leverage other people, and there will always be people who give and give and give, and wind up being left with only the resentment they feel when they run into someone who only takes.
Everyone suffers. So do you. Understanding this is only the beginning. You can't understand another's suffering by minimizing your own; it's a two-way street, and compassion without reciprocity is self-flagellation. After all, if the plane you're on is crashing, then it would be counterproductive of you to not put on your mask before helping others with theirs. That, I feel, is the open secret, whether Rumi agrees or not.