It is a basic human need to feel understood and seen, and our everyday exchanges don’t always fill our cups with that restorative nectar. Imagine how our world could be a more nurturing place if we cultivated the art of compassionate conversation in an intentional way. There is an iconic story told in the Christian scriptures about a woman (notable alone) who was brought to Jesus because she was caught in the act of adultery, and the religious leaders wanted to see how Jesus would respond. The elements of this tale are an interesting study in the best and worst of human conversation.
The Worst: Setting a Trap, Externalization, & Internalization
The religious leaders explicitly brought the adulterous woman to Jesus to bait him in the hopes of accusing him in some way. They were not for him or seeking to understand his perspective. Much like, “Don’t you think that . . .” sets another up for failure by forcing an issue, the powerful men had an agenda. They were trying to make a point, and this purpose did not have Jesus’ best interest at heart.
At the same time, the religious leaders singled the woman out by judging her for her unskillful behavior. Rather than acknowledging their own culpability in times of human weakness, they chose, instead, to project blame — effectively making her a scapegoat. Terms such as holier than thou and self-righteous aptly apply here.
Accordingly, while we don’t know the woman’s actual experience of being called out in this way, one possible scenario is that she internalized the shame and self-loathing being projected onto her and willingly allowed this public castigation. Certainly, in that society, there was slim possibility of healthy guilt leading to the chance of making amends and receiving forgiveness (from self and others). That is not our reality here and now, however. We can relate to ourselves in a more caring way.
The Best: Listening, Normalizing, & Offering Compassion
Before Jesus responded, he was quiet, doodling as he registered the accusations and arguments being made. He didn’t have an agenda. He was simply present, listening to understand.
Next, he normalized the woman’s unskillful behavior as part of being human. This type of validation relieves the pressure of feeling uniquely flawed, the awful burden of comparison. In effect, he was pointing out that we all make mistakes.
Then Jesus withheld any condemnation and instead, offered compassion. He met her with an open heart that affirmed that we are all in this together. He received her, instead of rejecting her.
Unwise and inconsiderate actions, such as laying a trap, externalization, and internalization, are based on our default settings when we feel insecure and unsafe. We have learned to cope with our fears by projecting blame, shaming ourselves, or globalizing the problem, i.e. assigning meaning to this one event as showing that things, in general, are hopeless. But there is another way in which we can engage in conversation that spreads love and not fear. This famous narrative demonstrates the positive consequences of choosing love: through listening, acknowledging our shared humanity, and meeting another with benevolence. In this fashion, the misguided intent of the religious leaders was diffused instead of escalated.
Let’s notice together that sometimes forgiveness comes with boundaries, and these two components are fundamentally different. Forgiveness communicates an attitude of hospitality and love to the person. While boundaries state that I don’t condone your behavior. After joining the woman in solidarity for their shared humanity, Jesus also set a boundary. He told her, “Go and sin no more.”
It must also be acknowledged that while each of us has the agency to engage in compassionate conversation, exercising this choice is affected by our circumstances. For example, when we are dealing with the effects of past trauma and present pain or don’t have our basic security needs met, our tolerance is lowered and our reactivity is increased. When we feel disconnected and isolated, the same is true.
That is why those of us who are well-resourced and meaningfully connected have a greater present capacity to offer an open heart. Nevertheless, we all, outside of cases of abuse and neglect, can invest intentionally in our self-care, even in small ways. One drop of personal empowerment, then another and another, will fill an empty cup over time. As we position ourselves to receive that life-giving nectar, we will also be able to offer it to others.
May your mind be peaceful and calm, may your body be relaxed and comfortable, and may your heart be filled with love.
Thank you for reading.
Blessings and gratitude, Ani