Memoir as an Act of Compassion

“The only way to transform our enemy to become our friend is dialogue, respect,” the Dalai Lama said at a conference in Seattle on April 11. “That’s a way of compassion.” As a writer and teacher of the art of memoir, these words hit home with me. I teach about transformations through stories, and the Dali Lama points out how dialogue can be transformative and lead to compassion.

The way I see it, the act of making memoir, of crafting narrative from life experience is a way of compassion. Writing personal stories is a way to befriend yourself and make peace with others. But you have to be honest, and by honesty I mean telling the truth of what you have experienced. Being honest has to do with compassion, for yourself and others. And compassion requires you get outside the small, judgmental, mean-spiritedness you may carry in your bones, every single day. You can’t be truly honest if you aren’t being compassionate.

The Dalai Lama also noted that while compassion motivates transformation, the real factor of change is action. In memoir, action means getting honest with yourself about things that have happened in your life. It means ripping away the illusion of what you’ve always told yourself. Getting honest means learning compassion for the people in your life whom you would rather demonize. Getting honest means coming to terms with your shared humanness, seeing all players with empathy, and that includes yourself.

One of the main reasons readers come to memoir is to find out how they can live a better life by witnessing the mistakes and victories, the wisdom garnered, and the humility displayed by one of their fellow humans. “How is this writer’s story like mine?” “How can I learn about my life from hers?”

Humans want to be shown examples of how to live a better life. This is what the exiled Tibetan leader is talking about: transforming your life and giving others the tools to do the same.