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“Cultivating Compassion in a Cruel World”

How do we hold on to our compassion in a culture of contempt? Cheryl Strayed and Rene Denfeld talk about staying open even when the world feels closed.

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Rene: I’m so honored to be talking about this with you, as you’re my role model as someone who—seemingly miraculously—stays open and compassionate even when people treat you badly. And not just in the past, either. 

Cheryl: Thank you, but truly the honor is all mine. I deeply admire the work you’ve done and the life you’ve lived. You’re a role model to me in so many ways, Rene—as a writer, a parent, and a citizen.

Rene: Being a writer and an activist today is such a public role. How do you stay open in a culture where an innocent tweet about a man wearing pajamas on a plane leads to people saying you should die?

Cheryl: I stay open by closing myself off to people like that! Truly, for me the secret to maintaining an active social media presence, as I do, is that you need to know when to connect and engage and when to disconnect and disengage. There have been times on social media that I’ve been criticized in ways that were utterly ridiculous—as when a few people took offense at the tweet you reference in which I made what I thought was nothing more than an amusing remark about a man who was wearing pajamas on a flight I was on. But most often social media has been a useful tool when it comes to connecting. A lot of amazing people are in my life because we connected on social media—you included! I’ve been made aware of so many good things that I wouldn’t have been aware of if not for social media. I remind myself of those positive things when I’m feeling bruised by a nasty or critical comment.

Rene: I try to remember people are scared and lashing out. But it must be okay for us to admit it’s hard. How can we protect ourselves and still stay strong enough to be vulnerable? I’m big on vulnerability. I think it is the place where love grows.

Cheryl: I think vulnerability is about love and I also think it’s about strength. To be vulnerable isn’t to fail at protecting yourself. In fact, to avoid being vulnerable is to put yourself at far deeper risk. I believe this with all of my heart, even though that belief runs counter to what we’re told about vulnerability, which is that to be vulnerable is to be weak. Vulnerability is at root about telling the truth and I can’t think of anything braver than that. When we’re vulnerable we speak honestly about what we think and feel; we tell the truest stories about our desires, experiences, fears, and aspirations. I’ve found that when I’m most vulnerable, people are drawn to me. They say me too. They say thank you for making me feel less alone. Vulnerability is power and it’s also empowering.

Rene: There’s an interesting phenomenon in our culture where we pathologize those who have experienced trauma, often to the point of invalidating them. Like juries where victims are not allowed to serve under the assumption we will be biased. It sets the standard of intellectual and moral purity as someone who have never been hurt. Those are the ones who we are supposed to trust to make decisions. But I feel exactly the opposite. I think those of us who have been hurt are exactly what this world needs. I think we’re the ones who can lead with compassion.

Cheryl: Absolutely. Both of us have written about this in our books in perhaps indirect ways. I see in your work the ways that your characters are so fiercely informed by their traumas—and they use them to do good in the world. They turn the ugly thing into the beautiful thing. The Butterfly Girl is all about that and I’d say all of your work is, as is mine. In my Dear Sugar column, it’s so apparent that I do that with my life—in the advice I give, I draw on my experiences, many of them traumatic or at least difficult. Life is a powerful teacher. I think the most important work we’re here to do is to learn from it. Our traumas can nurture us in profound if we’re lucky and also if we let them.

Rene: Maybe the key question is what we do with our trauma. Can we let it keep us strong enough to be open? To keep learning even in a time when we might be attacked for simply daring to exist? 

Cheryl: I know you know the answer to that, Rene, because you have done it so beautifully in your life. You’ve also done it in your books. Naomi—our heroine in The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl—is strong and open not in spite of her trauma, but because of it. She is doing what all people who’ve done the hard work of healing must always do: accept that while we cannot change the ugliness of the past, we can create beauty in the present. And we must. Your work is a glorious example of that, as is your life. Naomi’s life is as well.

Rene: You are so kind. I see you as a role model of someone who continues to help others no matter what, and because you genuinely care. A response I often hear is we should grow a thick skin. But I don’t believe we should have to have a thick skin. I think we have a right to be tender. There is a lot of racism, sexism and classism in brutalizing people and then telling them to get used to it.

Cheryl: I’m often skeptical of the grow-a-thick-skin advice, for exactly the reason you cite. In my own life a better approach is to stay tender while also learning how not to take things personally. Very often critical or hateful words are projections, not accurate descriptions of reality.

Rene: One of my personal sayings is, “bitterness is the enemy of art.” I can’t write—or function—from a place of bitterness. That’s been an important realization for me. Anger can invigorate me but is has to be mixed with compassion. Like in doing my justice work. It would be so easy to let bitterness consume me. I witness so much injustice, it can feel overwhelming. But collapsing into bitterness doesn’t help me or anyone else.

Cheryl: This is universally true for me as well. And not just bitterness, but really any negative feeling. When I feel defeated or angry or bitter or disempowered, I find it hard to do much of anything that’s constructive or creative.

Rene: One of the miracles of art, of books, is we can welcome people into compassion. It’s a private conversation between the author and the reader, a soft place to fall. 

Cheryl: This is the reason so many people can name books that have saved them or changed their lives. When we see ourselves in the characters on the page—whether they be actual people or fictional people—we are gain compassion for and understanding of ourselves. When we come to love characters who have lived very differently from us, we can’t help but bring some of that love into our perceptions of others. It’s a mighty thing. I’m a true believer in the power of stories. They are vital to our thriving.

Rene: What does writing from compassion look like to you? How does it manifest on the page?

Cheryl: Compassion is about allowing that everyone has a point of view that’s born from experience, shaded by longing, and informed by culture and code. Writing compassionately is about loving the many things that made us and trusting there are many ways to the mountaintop.

Rene: My greatest regrets are the times I lacked compassion for others. I think the hardest parts of growth are recognizing our own mistakes. We live in such a culture of defensiveness. It feels like an unwillingness to take accountability. Why can’t we just say we were wrong? Why do we see it as such a loss?

Cheryl: Because it’s scary to be wrong. Because we’re afraid we’ll lose power or honor. Because it feels like defeat. And yet—here again—being vulnerable enough to say sorry is actually the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves. We don’t have to carry those mistakes around as regret when we admit to them.

Rene: Do you do anything as a daily practice, to stay open? What do you in practical ways to do maintain your sense of vulnerability?

Cheryl: I wish I could say I have a daily practice! Do you have one? My life is erratic enough that a daily practice feels impossible, but I will say that I do thinks regularly that are helpful. I walk a lot. I talk to myself a lot—meaning I have conversations with myself in my head in which I attempt to allow my kindest, most loving voice drown out the other voice I refer to as my Inner Terrible Someone.

Rene: My practice sounds a lot like yours—it’s more about having habits like taking long walks. Lately I’m working on dropping the story and dropping into the feeling. We all tell ourselves stories, usually not very nice ones, about ourselves and others. I try to identity what the feeling is about instead. Is it fear? Anger? Hurt? A lot of my work is pushing back against the idea people like me, who have experienced a lot of trauma, are broken or damaged forever. I’m not broken. I am just as innocence as anyone else. Life is full of beauty and magic—you only must look outside to see it. There is beauty, even in the struggle.

Cheryl: Yes! All of that. I think of you as extraordinary and yet the most beautiful thing is that you are also ordinary. So many people who have been wounded make those wounds the greatest source of their power. There are many of us who have had painful experiences who no longer live in that pain. We are beacons for each other. You are that to me and to so many.

Rene: One of the balancing acts for me is keeping boundaries that are strong enough to protect myself—and my family—but not so high that I don’t let others in. As women we are trained to be people pleasers. Part of the challenge for me is being compassionate but also having those boundaries. It’s being able to say no as much as I say yes.

Cheryl: It’s really important and SO HARD TO DO. I interviewed Oprah on my Dear Sugars podcast about saying no and she said that learning how to do that was the hardest journey of her life! I relate entirely. It seems so simple to be okay with disappointing people, but it isn’t. I struggle with it daily. Constantly. I hate to say no and yet what I’ve learned is that I must.

Rene: I wonder if we confuse outrage with action. Outrage is the feeling. Action is what we do about the feeling. Helping others heal is healing for me. Acting isn’t just empowering. It’s a way of saying, I can change this, there is hope. And I think that is deeply threatening to those who want us to feel helpless, want us to feel powerless.

Cheryl: We do conflate the two—and social media certainly helps us with that! Sometimes it feels like we’re doing something when we tweet about it, but I agree the more important part is actually doing something. Donating money, writing a letter or an op-ed piece, reaching out with an act of kindness to someone who needs it—these things have power because not only do they bring actual good into the world, they allow us to feel that we are part of the fight for good. 

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