Vexation or compassion?

I have a feeling this may become a recurring picture. Although in my case it feels more like I am returning from a different planet and seeing my own with new eyes.

A little background before we get to the philosophy. I am still trying to learn the ancient Oriental board game of Go. The rules are simple but the strategies almost unlimited. One of the resources I use is the Go Teaching Ladder, a website where you can comment on games by those less skilled than you, and get comments from those more skilled than you. More importantly, there are thousands of commented games, with various skill levels both in the commenter and the players. Walking through these can be very instructive.

I was stepping through a couple games played by 28-kyu players (that is very close to the bottom of the newbie league) and commented by a 2-dan player (that’s someone who may have a small chance at becoming a professional, depending on luck and location). The comments were instructive (if a bit above my head from the midgame onward) and amusing. You got a pretty good feeling for how he experienced watching the blind fighting the blind. At one point, when one of the players had made variations of the same error a number of times in a row, “magnus” (not me! the 2-dan player) exclaimed that playing like that  “is like bashing your own face with a brick”.

And this, dear congregation, is my text today: Living in the dark and making the same mistakes over and over is like bashing our own face with a brick, and not knowing who is doing it.


I suppose a “dan player” in the game of real life is one who is able to understand the great masters – the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Socrates etc – and not only learn from them on a conscious level, but also practice wisdom, even if not necessarily on the highest level and all the time. Such a person would live a wonderful life in some ways, but would also be almost completely surrounded by the sight of people bashing their own faces with bricks, cutting themselves by grabbing knives by the blade, burning themselves by picking up red-hot coals to throw at other people, all that kind of stuff.

I can’t even claim to be on that level, but I guess I am not a beginner at life anymore, at least not in all ways. And one of the things that really bother me about social networks such as Google+ (not to mention Facebook, well, I mentioned Facebook but I don’t go there every month) is the sheer number of people bashing their faces in public and holding onto hot coals, getting angrier and angrier the more it hurts.

But enough about the American election campaigns.

The question is, how do I react to the self-inflicted suffering of other people? Given that I have inflicted a lot of suffering on myself over the past and will likely do so in the future, just on a more private and subtle level, my first response should be compassion. And there is some of that, if I must say so myself. (And who else would?)  But then someone – I or another – tries to given them some helpful advice. And this makes them very upset, causing them at best to run inside and close the door, at worst to hurt themselves even more. So after a while, some of us reach the conclusion that this is not a forum where we can actually help people.

In theory, it should be possible. I think it may happen occasionally, but it is so rare at least that I cannot offhand recall seeing it.

There is a tendency, when the less skilled fail to accept advice, that compassion turns to vexation. This is not a good thing, I think.

In the Christian story of the Incarnation, God had to go all the way down to where the people were, down in the manger, down in the desert, eventually down in the grave. Because with the possible exception of the few scattered saints of the Covenant, people just weren’t able to get up on high ground despite the best advice. Looking at this story from almost 2000 years later, there is some doubt as to the effectiveness even of this rescue expedition. Although I think my country would have been worse off if we were still following Odin, truth to tell. (Odinists may disagree. The Håvamål has some pretty good advice, after all.)

Anyway, it may be vexing to see people demand the right to keep bashing their own faces with bricks, but let us remember that it could have been us (or for some of us, it actually was) and hold on to compassion.

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