Escaping Hell Through Compassion

By Matthieu Ricard on November 18, 2015

"No matter who it is you meet, know that they have already walked several times through hell," writes French poet Christian Bobin. Our Parisian brothers and sisters, those who lost their lives, those who were seriously injured, their relatives and all those who were shocked by the tragedy in country that has been at peace for more than half a century -- they have all been through hell. So how do they not lose courage? How should they react correctly to such a flood of barbarism? Resign themselves to an unacceptable situation? Show fortitude? Resignation leads to discouragement and passivity. But resilience engenders the strength of soul needed to face adversity with wisdom and compassion. As for fear, we must overcome it with solidarity.

In the case of an organization like ISIS, it's not about tolerating their unspeakable actions. We must do everything to stop them from being repeated. But at the same time, we must realize that these people are not born with the desire to cut off heads and decimate villages. There is a set of causes and conditions that led them to their terrible behavior. Compassion, in this case, is the desire to address these causes, much like the way a doctor seeks to end an epidemic. This means we need to address the inequalities in the world, to give young people better access to education, to improve the status of women, and so much more. We need to eliminate the social environments that allow these extremist movements to take root.

When someone's mind has already been inflamed by hatred, to have compassion means to view him the way a doctor would approach a patient who is mentally ill. First, we need to prevent harm. But, like a doctor who is able to address the source of mental illness without turning his patient's brain to much, we must consider all possible means to solving this problem without also falling victim to violence and hatred. If hatred answers hatred, the problem will never end. The time has come to apply the balm of compassion to our wounds, our pain, and the madness of the world.