Compassion for Cruel People


“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” ~Luke 23:34 KJV.

The world is a cruel place. If you have any doubt about that, turn on the news. Watching any news channel for no more than five minutes makes it abundantly clear that there is no shortage of cruelty in all levels of society – from that of the lowliest janitor or laborer to that of the wealthiest financier or ruler – and in all cultural milieus – from the most technologically challenged tribal villages to the most technologically advanced urban centers.

Cruelty is commonplace. There is nothing special or remarkable about sadism. It is widespread and universal. It infects the human condition from childhood through advanced age. We are hard pressed to escape it.

Essentially, as I have discovered, after some reflection, cruelty is a way for weak people to feel empowered. What is truly remarkable is compassion and empathy – that takes inner strength and courage, especially in the face of cruelty.

Cruelty is easy.

Compassion is hard.

And compassion for cruel people is hardest of all.

When one confronts cruelty or a cruel person, the experience is invariably painful in some way – physically or psychologically. The most natural response to cruelty, therefore, is to respond in kind – with more cruelty – to seek to hurt or inflict pain on the people who inflict pain on oneself. The experience of pain makes one feel powerless, and one seeks to respond by inflicting pain on others in order to feel empowered.

One might seek to inflict pain on those whom one deems to be responsible for one’s own pain, thereby gaining a sense of retribution – or on some random, hapless bystander or scapegoat, thereby gaining the satisfaction of feeling oneself to be higher up in the food chain and not quite so helpless as the experience of pain and cruelty invariably make one feel. The sad reality to this situation is that if one responds to cruelty with more cruelty, then one is, essentially, succumbing to the influence of cruelty – becoming infected by the contagion of cruelty – allowing the inhumanity of others and of the circumstances one experiences to rob one of one’s own humanity.

It is a case of “an eye for an eye mak[ing] the whole world blind,” to quote Gandhi.

The most difficult thing in the world is to respond to cruelty with compassion, with kindness, with understanding. What that requires is tremendous inner strength – the strength to absorb pain and not allow a painful experience to render one heartless, unsympathetic and vindictive. It then requires one to try to appreciate the fact that those who are cruel towards you are, invariably, themselves in pain – that they are reacting out of their own personal sources of pain. That they seek to inflict pain on others in an attempt to alleviate the pain that they themselves feel, for some reason. It then requires one to seek to understand their source of pain in order to feel compassion for them.

If one is able to accomplish this truly heroic feat – a feat more admirable than winning any Olympic gold medal, in my humble opinion – one is able to respond to cruelty with compassion, with kindness, with empathy, and, thereby, one is able to overcome it, and not be overcome by it. One is then truly able to “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” and, in doing so, help to make the world a slightly better place.