How to Be Compassionate

Last week I contrasted the prevalent aphorism to “let go” of difficult experiences, as exemplified by the hit song from Frozen “Let it Go”, with the similar but fundamentally different approach of “Letting it Be”. This process is best represented, obviously, by the Beatles song “Let it Be.” I called it the wisest song in the history of pop music, which it absolutely is. Let’s listen to the song again, and I’ll spend a few words breaking down the wisdom and the psychological utility of the Beatles sage advice.

The most notable aspect of the song is its beauty. In their years of making innovative, world-changing music, the Beatles never produced a more beautiful song. I won’t try to get into the psychology of beauty and why we find things beautiful- mostly because I am not that well-informed on that front- but you know it when you see it, or, more to the point, hear it.

The song is also soaked with a poignant sadness. There are references to “times of trouble”, loss, and broken-heartedness scattered throughout. The lyrics convey this, but not so clearly as the accompanying music. That the emotional tone of the piece is so heavily shaded by sadness is a mark of its wisdom. It isn’t possible to let something be without deeply acknowledging its presence. The song achieves such emotional weight by artfully acknowledging the presence of pain associated with loss, uncertainty and fear.

Letting something be, as the Beatles portray it, is not a way to get away from pain, it is a way to live with pain.

Acknowledging that emotional pain is an integral part of being human shift the focus from whether to have pain to how to hold it. John, Paul & Co have some good advice here. Firstly- it isn’t a battle. You will find no struggle in the song, no fight at all. This is nearly the opposite of how most of us react to pain most of the time. A more typical reaction is to resist unwanted emotion and feeling, attempting to push it away through act of will or resolve. This has the unwanted effect of introducing tension and stress into an already un-winnable battle.

This openness and receptivity to the reality of suffering gives rise to the possibility of something other than tension and strife, it creates the conditions necessary for the expression of compassion.

It is compassion that is at the heart of this song, and “Let it Be” is one of the most perfect expressions of compassion that you’ll ever find. The genius of the song isn’t that it tells us how to express compassion, it is that it demonstrates compassion for us. Indeed, when taken out of context, the lyrics aren’t that helpful. But the spareness of the message- presence, acceptance, caring- combined with the reassuring and ultimately hopeful beauty of the song and the gentle, persistent reminder to “let it be” create a nearly perfect practical example for how to put compassion into practice. Ultimately, compassion is a practice, not an idea. It is very hard to put into words. It requires an active willingness to be passive in the face of a powerful desire to turn away- a skill to be practiced, never mastered.

I will almost certainly be posting more on compassion in the near future, as it is something that has really caught my attention lately. A few weeks ago at a professional conference I learned of the presence of a type of treatment known as “Compassion Focused Therapy” and was able to attend a workshop about it. I’ve also been inspired to pick up Dr. Dan Gilbert’s book on the subject, The Compassionate Mind, which neatly summarizes much of the recent science on the topic and how compassion towards one’s self and others can be such a helpful approach to living.

No matter what anyone else says on the matter, however- it’s unlikely than anyone else will ever say it better than John, Paul, George and Ringo.



One thought on “How to Be Compassionate

  1. Brilliant Nate. Love the differentiation between let it go and let it be. The one thing to add for me – there is added poignancy to think of when this was written and released in terms of the band’s lifespan. I never knew them, and I still miss them.

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