Compassion and Abstraction

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Abstraction gets a bad rep. It’s often seen as cold, calculating, divorced from emotion. But I’ve found the exact opposite. Abstraction is crucial to my ability to have compassion. Abstraction helps me step back from my own experience, and look at it in a bigger picture — a picture that includes other people.

Here’s an example. We’ve all seen progressives who are very skilled at critiquing oppression that affects them — and utterly clueless about ways they oppress others. We’ve all seen, for instance, white feminists go after men who derail conversations about sexism, focus the conversations on themselves and their hurt feelings, chide women for being uncivil and harsh, demand to be educated on demand about Feminism 101, argue arrogantly instead of listening, accuse feminists of being divisive, and pull out the “not all men” card. Then, in conversations with black women about racism in the feminist movement, those same white feminists will turn around and do the exact same things: derail, make it about them, argue instead of listening, say black feminists are being divisive, etc.

Abstraction helps me not do that. It doesn’t help me avoid it entirely: I’m sure I’ve done these things and will probably do them again. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the impulse to do one of these things, how many times I’ve felt hot and flushed and uncomfortable and felt the impulse to get defensive — and stopped, because I could see the pattern. Stopped, because I remembered that I’m not a special snowflake, and my own feels don’t make me magically transcend the pattern. Stopped, because I knew that however much I feel like a good person who isn’t racist or transphobic or ableist or classist or ageist, I know that my feelings don’t transcend my actions, and my actions are what counts.

Or, to put it more simply: Abstraction helps me put myself in other people’s shoes, and helps me see myself as others might see me.

I know that anyone can do good things or bad things, that there’s no clear bright line dividing good people from bad people, that very few people feel like they’re bad and we all rationalize the bad things we do. Abstraction helps me remember that this applies to me, that I’m one of the people this is true for. Abstraction helps me remember that no matter how much my brain wants to fm rationalize everything I do, I’m not always right, and I’m not always good. It helps me step back from my feels, look at what I’m doing, and recognize when it’s part of a pattern I don’t want to be part of.

Abstraction by itself isn’t enough. We also need empathy. We need the ability to see patterns of good and bad behavior and see where our own behavior fits into that — and we need the desire to not hurt people.We need the ability to step back and see ourselves as part of a bigger picture — and we need the desire to be part of that picture.

Abstraction isn’t enough. But for me, it’s essential. It doesn’t make me perfect — but it helps me do better.

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Compassion and Abstraction