How To Have Compassion For Bad Humans Who are Down on Their Luck
Photo by Jack Sharp / Unsplash

How To Have Compassion For Bad Humans Who are Down on Their Luck

I can feel empathy for someone while accepting that they are flawed or lost, or corrupt.

I have sat in AA meetings with people who have done bad things. I have listened to ex-cons confess to crimes they committed while wasted decades ago, and I’ve watched those same men choke back tears of gratitude for their sobriety.

I have sipped weak coffee while making small talk with men who have hurt the ones they love while drunk, which doesn’t make them special because all drunks hurt the ones they love in one way or another.

I have talked to a friend late at night on the phone about forgiveness; the point isn’t whether or not the other person forgives you the point is that you ask and acknowledge you were wrong, and you let them know you know that. And that’s that, your job is to continue fighting to stay sober and grounded and breathing. I use to have some wild nights when I was drinking, but nothing is wilder than being sober enough to accept responsibility for your actions. It’s a real thrill ride, looking at yourself in the mirror and not closing your eyes.

After one meeting years ago, a friend complained that a famous person who had been “canceled” had been quietly sitting alone in a pew in the back row of the church. It was triggering, and I sympathized with them. The famous person had done bad things and had paid a stiff price. I’m sure their victims would say their loss of wealth and fame was not enough.

They looked like they were doing the work, and sometimes doing the work is dragging yourself to a public meeting full of people openly and freely admitting to being broken and in a constant state of self-repair.

I am not the world’s best “friend of Bill.” I can go without a meeting for months at a time, and that’s because, drunk or sober, I can be a standoffish cave dweller who hisses at emotions and human connection like a vampire recoiling from a sunbeam.

I have not had a drink in twelve years, but I’m still learning how to show up for myself and others, and most importantly, how to see clearly and honestly and be seen by loved ones and strangers and my fellow alcoholics.

The most shocking thing about quitting drinking is when you realize it was never the booze. The booze made it all worse, absolutely, and I will never have another drink again unless I’ve decided to ruin my life. But unfortunately, I’m a human, even when sober, which means I don’t need alcohol to be selfish or cruel, or self-loathing. It is humbling to realize you’re an asshole and the only way not to be an asshole is to be present and accountable, and aware every second of every day. It is exhausting. And I fail at it all the time. But it’s worth it. I’m fairly certain.

I never saw that “canceled” celebrity again at that meeting. I hope they got what they needed. I hope they’re sober. I felt a great deal of compassion for them because I am a drunk who needs to be reminded that I’m only as sober as my last choice.

I don’t know if ‘cancel culture’ really exists, but it certainly seems to exist for those who feel they’ve been canceled, lost their jobs and friends, and have had their lives wrecked because truths came out.

I believe people make mistakes. I believe words are sacred. I believe in cause and effect. If you say hateful things for laughs and get booed, then there you go — cause and effect.

I don’t know if ‘cancel culture’ is real, but I know there’s a real culture in our society of silence and secrets, of men who don’t snitch on their friends and people who drink secretly and rage in public. That’s the culture I’m more familiar with. It’s one where the creeps are protected at all costs, where people say and do terrible things and shriek when they’re found out.

Whatever this new so-called ‘cancel culture’ phenomenon is, it can be messy and remorseless at times… and seductive. It’s not a perfect movement, but mobs aren’t well-known for embracing nuance or thoughtfulness. A mob is like a party with rabies.

There are passionate defenders of “cancel culture” who moralize like televangelists preaching “them and us” to their eager flocks. Being told you are good feels good. Never forget that. I resist that feeling like it's a Jack and Coke.

Are people accused of things on social media and in the press innocent? I would say yes; juries and villagers with pitchforks make mistakes all the time. There are far too many people who accept such injustices committed in the pursuit of justice, and I’d just like to state that, in this context, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” is an immoral philosophy. One innocent person persecuted is too many.

And then there are the victims of harassment and violence and naked prejudice who discover the courage to speak up. Who find their voices. Who shout and are lifted and told to shout again. That is a form of power. It’s not quite the power of money or the state. But there is power in yelling your truth with all your heart and demanding to be heard and for justice to be served.

There is power in screaming, “you’re not funny,” “that’s racist,” and “I do not consent” at the top of your lungs.

These are surprising times. Suddenly, the silenced can make noise. They can point and speak and cast a spotlight on liars and predators, and betrayers. And — shockingly — many people will listen. I don’t know how long this will last. I predict that a return to the status quo is inevitable and, again, that status quo is one where the powerful and privileged do what they want, and if you tell a soul, they’ll crush you.

That “canceled” celebrity was exactly where they were supposed to be — an AA meeting. Alcoholics Anonymous is where the canceled have gathered for almost ninety years. It’s where you go when you have nowhere to go. As the AA preamble says, “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

They are safe spaces where there is only one topic. No politics, no small talk, no bullshit. We’re all a bunch of filthy alcoholics. You can talk all you want in your allotted time; just keep it focused on how you’re trying to be a better, kinder, sober person—emphasis on trying.

I’m not suggesting AA meetings are where you can go to find redemption. Take that up with God as you understand her. They’re also no substitute for therapy, where a friendly professional can help you untangle complicated pasts, tackle current challenges, and forge happier, more productive futures. Ask if you can pay on a sliding scale!

But if you attend an AA meeting and honestly open up about your struggles with booze and being a human, someone like me will listen without judgment unless you veer into self-pity. I’ll 100% judge you for that.

An AA meeting is where you can find compassion while also suffering the consequences of your actions, which is as good as it gets in this life. Everyone deserves understanding, even monsters. Yes. I believe that. But not everyone deserves to be forgiven. If you did something wrong and got caught or worse, you never got caught and can’t live with it, then own up and take what’s coming to you.

These two things must be allowed to co-exist. Compassion and consequences. I can feel empathy for someone while accepting that they are flawed or lost, or corrupt. Forgiveness is a process, and the hardest part is first admitting that you were a piece of shit. The bottle didn’t make you do it, nor did the devil. You did it because you’re a human, and you had a choice, and you chose fear and anger and greed. That doesn’t make you unique, by the way. After accepting that, everything else snaps into place.

I know not everyone is a drunk. But I think all of this applies to civilians, too.

It is impossible to feel compassion for someone without first trying to empathize with them. Empathy is not a gift. It is not a hug. It’s easy to love someone who loves you back. Empathy is a survival skill. It is a complex emotional response that requires imagination and grit, and sensitivity. It takes practice too. But it’s useless unless you try to empathize with those you hate and who hate you. The only way to defeat a wolf is to think like a wolf.

When empathizing with a brute or a fraud, or a narcissist, just remember that they think the whole world is against them. It’s not as hard as you’d think. They don’t think they’re a villain. No one does. That’s the human condition right there.

I, personally, empathize with anyone ruled by their insecurities and resentments. I’m constantly struggling with who I am and who I want to be, and how I think others see me. You can even feel compassion for your enemies, which isn’t the same thing as letting bygones be bygones. Some people should never be allowed to have the keys to your heart or home, and you can still protect your soft parts and treasures without hating them. Hating wastes precious life energies.

Some people cannot conceive of a life without pain, and they try to drink or snort that pain away or lash out and spread the hurt like an infection in the hopes that it will make them feel less lonely. Empathize with them, too. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t feel good, but it will help you let go.

My first few weeks of sobriety were choppy. I remember listening to Led Zeppelin’s Rain Song over and over on my iPod and crying in my bed at noon, and crawling to meetings in windowless basements.

But there are a few memories that shine through the mist of those early years, and one is of a middle-aged man in a suit, a real Death of A Salesman-type, at a meeting whose family wouldn’t return his calls anymore. Too many years of fury and Cutty Sark and sobbing afterward. He mentioned being arrested and needing money, and that was the last time he had spoken to his ex-wife.

I think about him all the time. I think about him, and I wonder if he was ever welcomed back into his family or if he was able to create a new one, even if it was nothing but other drunks.

But what he wanted to share was his gratitude: he was thankful for the opportunity to talk and be heard. He was thankful for the meeting, which was close to his apartment. He was two months sober. His voice trembled when he said that. At that moment, I was the closest thing he had to family, and I had just met him and would never see him again.

He finished his share and smiled. He was alone and despised, but at least he had a good attitude. The man had fucked-up, but he smiled, and I knew there was hope.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of John DeVore's work on Medium. And pre-order his book, Theater Kids: A True Tale of Off-Off Broadway here.