We will get along just fine, though hopefully not too fine, because I am not looking for any new friends. End speech. — Ron Swanson
“How do you balance it?” I ask my sister, the civil rights lawyer. It is some time past midnight, and she is trying to sleep on a slowly deflating air mattress in the corner of my dorm room. “How do you balance… your compassion and your anger?”
“Work,” she answers, something between amusement and exasperation in her voice. “You have to work at it constantly.”
We talk about the way people change over time — how anger and distancing are an essential part of growing up because they teach us what we will not tolerate. We agree that the creation of boundaries comes with a certain loss, though we do not define what, exactly, we lose.
I am not sure why I ask these questions. Perhaps because I have been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Or perhaps because of the way the election or the Brock Turner case makes me feel, the stomach-twisting skin-crawling wrongness of prejudice. They say that if you are not angry, you are not paying attention, but how do we keep our anger at injustice from eroding the compassion that inspired it, from isolating or disheartening us? If we wish to heal the world, our anger must be a scalpel not a blunt instrument.
Perhaps I ask because I feel guilty — because I worry I am becoming cruel.
As I grow older, I have become less tolerant, at least in terms of friendship. I judge not by character alone but by competence, too. I will write someone off for thoughtlessness almost as easily as I would for unkindness or bigotry. I am less forgiving than I used to be, perhaps because I no longer feel I require others’ forgiveness. I build iron fences between myself and potential disappointments, then let the ivy grow. The compound of myself is not unlike a house I passed once on a road trip, with these words scrawled upon the roof: “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. GOD BLESS.”
Not that I am a poor friend investment — I generally have a good credit score, in terms of friendship; I pay back debts slowly and regularly; I am the loyalest of misers. Could not many of the great friend fall-outs of history have been avoided by greater diversification of investment? We should not expect too much of any one person — after all, if we agreed perfectly on every point, there would be point in knowing each other — and we must realize that, at times, we will be the ones begging forgiveness.
But how can one live compassionately through a gate? Must compassion be restricted to friends, clientele, or yearly donations with courtesy at hand for everyday niceties? Surely we should be no one’s friend out of pity.
Perhaps, if a friendship can be compared to an investment portfolio, compassion can be thought of in terms of emotional budgeting. I might save the better part of it for myself, put some aside for friendship maintenance and improvement, and leave the last part for the world, the small but extraordinary “unnecessaries” that make life worth living.
And who knows? As unlikely as it may sound, perhaps one day my soul will balance perfectly — not like a feather on the breath of God, but with the integrity and circumspection of a well-kept checkbook.