Compassion for a Sociopath?

A few weeks ago, in early December 2021, my next-door neighbor was killed in a fire that was intentionally set by his stepdaughter’s boyfriend. That was two weeks ago at the time I’m writing this and I’m still struggling to construct these sentences into a cohesive thesis. But I’ll give it a shot.

I can’t say I was very close to my neighbor. We did not spend much time together but he was kind, intelligent and musical and I liked him very much. He was elderly and had injuries that impacted his mobility so my husband and I would occasionally help him with yard work and other small chores that are never-ending when you live in the woods. I’m very sad that the end of his life was so painful and violent. I’m sad there was nothing we could do as we watched his home burn. I’m sad there’s a person in the world who could do such a thing to another person. I’m sad and I’m coping even though sometimes I don’t know what to do with all the sad, except to feel as much as I can tolerate and show myself as much compassion as possible.

And so, it comes back to compassion …

Compassion has been a central topic in my mind for much of my life but more specifically after I became a counselor, a practice that benefits from natural compassion for others. My interest was deepened after I decided to go vegan when I extended my compassion to include other animals. This past year, I’ve turned much of my attention to self-compassion, something I and many of my friends (many gen-x and older women) struggle to access, probably because culture taught us that our wants and needs just aren’t as important as taking care of others. It seems to me that I’ve spent the better part of my adulthood growing into a more compassionate human, or at least I’ve tried. Recently, I started to wonder, is limitless compassion possible? If so, is it desirable? Are there living, breathing, non-mythological people who model limitless compassion? Who are they? Where are they? Can I meet them? How do they do it? I have so many questions because, at this moment in my life, the limits of my own compassion are painfully apparent. 

Effortlessly, I feel compassion for my neighbor and his family. Next on the compassion hierarchy (I didn’t know existed until now), I feel compassion for myself, my family, and my other neighbors who experienced our own degree of trauma and loss. I can’t for the life of me access any feelings of compassion for the man who intentionally doused my neighbor’s house in gasoline, lit a match, and drove away. He did this knowing that the elderly couple who lived in the house were disabled, slept on the second floor, and used a chairlift. Their escape was extraordinarily unlikely. It appears, based on the investigator’s report that the man paid special attention to the exits, pouring extra gas in those areas. Somehow, the wife was able to escape moments before her home was engulfed. Her husband, our dear, sweet, eighty+-year-old friend, could not get down the stairs in time. He was overcome by smoke and then flames.

My mission in my life is to continuously expand my compassion as far as it can possibly go. “How Far Can Your Growing Compassion Take You?” is the heading I added to my website a few weeks ago, before the fire. My answer today is, not this far. Not yet. It may be too much for me, ever. That kind of compassion may not be for us mere mortals although I’ve heard of it. I’ve read about mothers who forgive their daughter’s killer, for example. I’m trying to put myself in their shoes but, when I do, I sense my body’s resistance. I hear the word, “no” over and over again in my head. Some things – some people – extend beyond the limits of my compassion. 

And yet, now that I think about it, I can intellectually comprehend that perhaps this man had a terrible life. Maybe he was abused as a child. Maybe someone inflicted injuries on him and left him incapable of genuine emotion. Maybe he played football in high school and was knocked about the head over and over again. His brain could be deeply and traumatically injured. Intellectually, I get that this is possible. But intellectual understanding is very different and very far from feeling compassion. It might be an early step in that direction but it is a tiny step on a long journey I’m not even sure I’m willing to take.

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