Is Compassion Possible in Politics?

Once upon a time, in the dark depressed days of my late teens and twenties it would have been fair to call me a cynic. I disliked most of the human race, and I particularly disliked those who disagreed with me.

In the 1980s, otherwise known as The Thatcher years, I moved to London. In a novel I’m working on just now, the main character is young Scottish woman who moves to London in the 1980s. As the flyleaf of novels often states: all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead (including me!) is entirely unintentional. But let’s just say I didn’t have to do a lot of research for that character. For one thing, she oozes cynicism.

Here’s a snippet from chapter 1. It’s her first evening in London and she’s in Piccadilly Circus, waiting to meet some old friends of her brother.

She bought a cheese and spinach pastry from a stall and sat down on the steps below Eros to eat.

Eros, God of Love, was going to be good to her in London. She would find the love of her life in the form of a man, in work, in a beautiful place to stay (when she could afford it, which might take a while on the salary she was about to get) and in friends. Living in London was going to work out just fine, she was sure.

Well, no, she wasn’t. She wanted to be sure, wanted a formula that would keep her safe, mean that she wouldn’t have to guess who would be a friend and who a foe:

People who had been to art college: friend. (Except for those girls at the Royal College.)

People who dressed in black and wore make-up to match: friend.

People who hated the Tories.

People who sneered at convention.

People who hated war.

People who were against racism.

And sexism.

People who voted Labour. (Except Don had voted Labour and it didn’t stop him being a terrible boyfriend.)

People who were in CND. (Except that was Don too.)

Back then I could pretty much have ticked most of those boxes too – except the boyfriend called Don, who is entirely fictitious.

As I grew older and less cynical, I also grew less interested in protest marches and in politics in general. No, correct that: I did lose interest in politics, but I was still cynical. I believed that all politicians were the same, so there wasn’t any point in trying to create change through politics. Instead, I would live by my principles – doing what I could for the environment, supporting charities, trying to be kind. I would be the change I wanted to see. I might not make a big difference, but every little helped.

In some ways, this wasn’t a bad approach to life. I learned to let go of resentment and to take responsibility for my emotions and actions – an on-going process that may take the rest of my life.

However, last year in Scotland, something happened that shook many of us out of political apathy. We had a referendum on whether or not to stay in the UK. Instead of this being a decision based on whether or not you felt affinity with people in the other countries that make up the UK, all sorts of social issues were added into the mix. I’m not going to rerun that debate right now, but let’s just say these have been interesting times that have made me think about politics differently.

Returning to the extract from my novel, notice that in my character’s list, most people she thinks might be friends aren’t defined by what they stand for, but what they are against.

I can’t do that any more.

After years of letting go, of developing compassion and of recognizing that what we dislike in others is what we repress in ourselves, I simply can’t go back to believing in “us and them.” When you go beneath surface appearances, the vast majority of people have very similar feelings, hopes and fears. We all want what is best for those we love and value, we all want security, some degree of control over our lives, to be loved and to love and to feel connection.

I’ve discovered that forgiving feels so much better than holding resentment, and that love feels so much better than hate. Trust and optimism feel so much better than cynicism. The challenge for me, and many others, is how to incorporate this into politics, which by its very nature appears to be about division. I’ll be honest – I’m not finding it all that easy.

However, not finding something easy can be a good thing. It challenges us, stretching our thinking in new directions. It makes us find new ways of relating.

I find it useful to remember that what I dislike in someone is what I deny in myself. As hard as I’ve sometimes try to refute that, I’ve yet to find a time it isn’t true! Sometimes it might not be a direct reflection – for instance, I noticed many people blaming the current UK government for all ills and not taking responsibility for things that were already within their power. I wondered – where do I do that? Very soon, I realised where – in my career. Why was I doing this? Because I felt scared, alone, not sure I could do what I believed was necessary for success. I’d like to say that upon realising this I instantly changed my ways – but I value honesty!

So, if I found change challenging, can I find compassion for myself in that, and compassion for the people I see doing the same? Mostly, yes, I can now. The strange thing is, that when I do that, change doesn’t seem so hard!

But then, it’s not really strange at all. When we resist our feelings, we use up so much energy fighting them that we have little left for change. When we allow our feelings, that allowing feels like love (because it is) and so change becomes possible. I’ve had online conversations with people from the “opposite side” in which they’ve called people who voted against them ignorant, stupid and sectarian. In one particular instance, I wanted to reply compassionately, but I also wanted to come up with smart put-downs. So I stewed a while before replying. Then I realised I was trying to make myself love these people and it felt so damned hard. Acknowledging that, having compassion for myself first, released me to feel compassion for them.

I hover on the edge of politics, still not sure how to step in without getting caught in the division. One answer might be Non-Violent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication.

One purpose of NVC is to foster understanding and connection. Instead of thinking of people’s behaviour in terms of right and wrong, it’s more useful to think in terms of unmet needs. All of us have physical needs, such as for shelter and food, and we have emotional needs, such as for connection, authenticity and creativity. So-called negative emotions are a sign that our needs aren’t being met. Looked at this way, it’s easier to see that even apparent opponents often share values – for example to protect those we love, or those who are vulnerable. Where we may differ is in the strategies we employ to try to meet needs and fulfil values.

Another answer might lie in simply being more willing to listen to people with opposing views. In the video below, Elizabeth Lesser suggests we “take the other to lunch.”

Yet another answer is in the words of Mother Teresa that I quoted at the start of this post.

I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.

When saying what we stand for instead of what we are against, we stop attacking others and look for solutions. I was delighted to see the campaigning organization Avaaz do this yesterday. Avaaz does good work, but much of it is against. In their new campaign, which they regard as their “Most Powerful Petition Target Ever,” people pledge to “live more by these 3 principles in 2015: to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom, and practice gratitude.”

You can sign their pledge here.

This is very similar to what we are doing in 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion. It isn’t politics, but it could affect politics. It’s a start.

Compassion Logo



  1. I have never been very interested in politics, but a lot of it does seem negative so that’s maybe why I shy away from it. I think you make a great point though that we should live by example, focusing on what we agree with instead of what we don’t, what is right instead of what’s wrong. That can only bring a more positive and compassionate world.

    1. Author

      Kerry, it is definitely a challenge to engage with politics and not get caught in the negativity! I suspect it’s why a lot of people feel like you – and like I did. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Yvonne, I am floored by the wisdom and humility of this post. What you make the effort to do in your daily life is exactly what could make the world a better place (more widely practiced). I feel I have touched the very surface of your practices, and I am so stunned by your compassion for yourself and for others. The practice of thinking how you deny yourself the feelings others show is so interesting! I’ve barely recognized that before, but I will make more of effort in the future.

    1. Author

      Sarah, I am floored by the kindness of your comment! Thank you! Looking for what I see in others and deny in myself is very freeing – so long as I remember not to beat myself for it too. That can be challenging – I was about to say in the beginning, but even now I catch myself doing it. So be gentle on yourself as you explore that.
      Thanks again for your lovely comment.

  3. Yvonne, the only place I disagree with any of your oh so thoughtful post is right at the end when you say this isn’t politics it is. it isn’t party political but this goes to the very heart of how we govern ourselves and the simple idea of stating ‘what am I for’ rather than against is so powerful. It forces us (me, say me) it forces me to be specific, to identify with trends, traits and proposals that each matter to me. It also makes it more difficult for me to sit on the fence if I have to think what I stand for.
    One of the absurdities for me of our political, party system , is the way principles are eroded to allow governments to continue. I understand compromise – I admire Clegg for deciding to support tuition fee rises, not because I think they are a good idea but for his decision: having a stable government at a time of crisis, he decided, is a good idea and if that was the entry price to the game then he had to pay it. He was clear why he did it and didn’t shy away form saying so. No Quisling excuses or blame. I don’t happen to agree with him but he took a stand. So many though, slide into the background, losing their principles if it will keep them in power. And there, to me, lies the reason why disillusionment can set in.
    I won’t be disillusioned and say ‘can’t be bothered’. I’d rather work harder to make the positive voices heard and maybe change a few opinions on the way and that is why your initiative, rather like some of the on line petitions you see, are a good thing in they pull together similarly minded voices. Some of the petitions seek simply to knock, to stop without trying to support a change (and of course that is right in some cases) whereas 1000 Voices will I hope be universally positive.
    I cannot say Well Done enough to you and Lizzi for kicking this off.

  4. Author

    Geoff, thank you for such a clear and insightful comment. You’re right of course, about the point about this being politics. I see now I even really argued that first, by saying we need to say what we are for! I guess my confusion was because, as you also say, it’s not party politics – but where I grew up (Shetland) the vast majority of councillors are non-affiliated. Maybe that’s actually the way to do things, though how that would work at country level, I’m not sure.

    I totally agree with you that too often principles get pushed aside to get power. I am interested that you describe what you admire in Clegg while disagreeing with him. He seems to have been roundly condemned for that decision regarding tuition fees, whereas making one poor decision doesn’t necessarily make a person into a monster. I find it fascinating that the Lib-Dems have lost so much support because of their coalition with the Tories, while the Tories haven’t lost voters to the same degree. I read somewhere that the last time the Liberals entered into a coalition with Conservatives it took them 70 years to recover. I’m not sure what this says about the British public, but it is fascinating.

    I agree that what you mention admiring in Clegg – that he made no excuses and didn’t blame is admirable, yet we seem in a minority right now. For all the public talk of wanting honesty from politicians, any who are honest seem to get condemnation. But perhaps that is because there is so much anger towards politicians in general just now, perhaps people are looking for reasons to attack them? I’m not sure. One aspect I find challenging is how to hold politicians accountable for decisions that adversely affect people’s lives, whilst not resorting to attack or blame. That is largely why I avoided “Politics” for so long.

    Much of politics seems to be reactive – which is back to what you say about principles being eroded to maintain (or achieve) power. I think it’s incredibly challenging to not get drawn into that – I noticed this in myself during the referendum lead-up, when at times I almost resorted to the shaming tactics I’d been subjected to. Recognising and accepting our human frailty is, I guess, part of how we create change.

    Thank you Geoff, for your comment and your continuous support of my blogging and of 1000 Voices!

  5. Pingback: For #1000Speak: On Compassion and Nonviolence | Just Gene'O

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