Hey, Don’t Take This Personally.

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No Passion, No Compassion.

For anyone trying to live a mindful and compassionate life, at some point you’re bound to be told not to take something too personally; like the plight of the poor, the impact of government policies, or something unkind said to someone we care about.

But doesn’t exercising compassion mean that we connect and take these things a little too personally (and no, I’m not talking about being offended by every little thing)?

How often these days do we hear messages telling us not to take something personally or that it’s “someone else’s problem”—encouraging us to disconnect from the world around us? To be fair, the person (usually a friend) giving us this advice probably doesn’t want to see us feel hurt or sad…but the message remains: disconnect and protect yourself.

If we take that advice, are we really being present in this world?

By taking the path of disconnection and living in a spiritual cocoon, we not only aren’t fully present but we render ourselves powerless to make a positive difference. Given the choices we make every day and their impact on the world around us, we can’t fully disconnect anyway.

To see our connection with others, we need to truly open ourselves up to it—and part of that means that we must acknowledge that some terrible things are going on in this world. Having the courage to bear witness to them can fuel the passion which drives our compassion.

Mother Teresa could have stayed in the convent praying for the rest of us, but instead she spent her life in the slums of Calcutta caring for the sick and poor. She certainly had the courage to connect, and was not afraid to live among and provide comfort to those with leprosy and other debilitating diseases.

This week in particular, we celebrate the memory of someone who had the courage to connect and a passion to fuel his compassion; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the news this week, you’ll probably hear him referred to as a “civil rights leader”—which he certainly was—but he was so much more. He was also a passionate advocate for peace and social justice. Above all, he was a champion of compassion, who asked us to take a sober look at whether we are truly living our values, and to do something about it. What was Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech (below) if not a call to connect with one another and live in harmony?

He not only fought for the rights of African-Americans, but for everyone, as highlighted in his Beyond Vietnam speech (also below) when he said that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” He reminded us that in the presence of injustice, we shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines but that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

As we reflect this week on the memory of a man who had the courage to empathize and the passion to drive his compassion, we should recall that he asked us all to take it personally and get involved.

So, how about it? You don’t need to take on the whole world but chances are, you’ll encounter a situation today where you can make some small difference. It could be speaking your truth on an issue you care about, or stopping to help someone in need. If anything, today’s imbalanced world provides plenty of opportunities to get involved.

So, if you dare to live compassionately, connect and get involved—just remember that we should have an easier time of it since we are (in the words of Isaac Newton) “standing on the shoulders of giants”…like Dr. King.

This article originally appeared in Elephant Journal in January, 2010