The urgency of compassion

The hope beyond. Carey Rose O'Connell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

This is not a political post. It is a human one.

This is not a call for leaders to claim responsibility, for those with opposing viewpoints to accept blame, or for half of America to pick up arms and fight. Instead, I'm urging the first step. I'm urging compassion.

What this election revealed to me was a nonpartisan fear of "the other." We (note the first person plural) have channeled our fear and misunderstanding into denigrating, labeling, stereotyping, judging, and avoiding. These behaviors are not limited by geography or ideology. Except for the very saintly among us -- and believe me, sisters and brothers, I am not one of them -- no one is exempt.

In the poem "A Community of the Spirit," Rumi writes, "Close both eyes to see with the other eye." What this election revealed to me on a personal level is that I am following only the first part of the instruction. I never opened the other eye, never released the air-lock of my echo chamber, and as a result thought the world was with me. So now as I look back through a rotating haze of despair, anger, and hope, I see that I didn't and don't know how to open that eye -- and even if I did, it's so crusted over with sleep gunk that I'm going to have to take a pick axe to it first.

Once I pry it open, however, and train it on the people and perspectives I cannot fathom, I have a specific challenge at hand. My challenge is to see the person before me first as a human being, with all the dignity, complexity, and frailty that entails. Then I must recognize that same dignity, complexity, and frailty in myself. Then I must accept that we each hold values, beliefs, convictions, and perspectives that might overlap, might not, and regardless will likely be prioritized and weighted differently. And through it all, I must approach it to the best of my ability with love. I must be kind.

Here's where the wheels were coming off for me this week, especially as my echo chamber was hurtling through waves of outrage and disbelief. How in the world can I be kind? What purpose does it serve? Does seeking understanding equal condoning? It wasn't until I read this essay on Brain Pickings, titled "Carl Sagan on Moving Beyond Us vs. Them, Bridging Conviction with Compassion, and Meeting Ignorance with Kindness," that some critical distinctions clicked:

[K]indness, Sagan cautions, doesn’t mean assent — there are instances, like when we are faced with bigotry and hate speech, in which we absolutely must confront and critique these harmful beliefs, for "every silent assent will encourage [the person] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice."


The greatest detriment to reason, Sagan argues, is that we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness, that deadly force of polarization.


Sagan’s central point is that we humans — all of us — are greatly perturbed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and in seeking to becalm ourselves, we sometimes anchor ourselves to irrational and ignorant ideologies that offer certitude and stability, however illusory. In understanding those who succumb to such false refuges, Sagan calls for "compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest." Echoing 21-year-old Hillary Rodham’s precocious assertion that "we are all of us exploring a world that none of us understand," he argues that the dangerous beliefs of ignorance arise from "the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world."

It's not unlike preparing for travel abroad to a new country. You read up on the basics first -- common phrases, transportation options, recommended lodging -- before you dive into the place's more intricate nuances, the ones not immediately apparent to the outsider. In travel, these layers of discovery can be pleasurable. You're exposed to new sights, sounds, people, ideas, and you learn more about yourself too, your own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. But such discovery can also be terrifying. You are pushed outside your comfort zone, confronted with the limits of your understanding, and asked to justify what you believe to be true. The potential for growth in these moments is profound -- and so is the capacity for fear.

Here, I find it helpful to look back on Sagan's point about slipping into self-righteousness, "the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive."

Compassion is what takes a chainsaw to the wall and cuts out a door for us. Consider the words of Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison in "Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life":

Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the under-privileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it on the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.

So in light of the angry discourse this week, the question for me becomes: Am I willing to seek out the most vulnerable and afraid among us so that I may better love them, knowing that those who are vulnerable and afraid span races, creeds, sexuality/gender, socioeconomic status, party lines, and voting choices? And once I drum up the courage to be willing, where do I begin the conversation?

My mandate, I think, is not to talk but to listen. Then to hear. Then to ponder. Then to act. Otherwise I am barreling into a pitch-black room with a blindfold on, swinging wildly. Now is not the time for shadow boxing, not when there are many real dangers present in the world. Now is the time to listen with intention and fight for love.

Recommended Digesting

Before you move on to my latest prayer below, check out some other articles, videos, and art that provoked my compassion contemplation:

White Christians Who Voted For Donald Trump: Fix This. Now. -- by John Pavlovitz, "Stuff That Needs To Be Said"

Evil -- by Langston Hughes

Kid President on How to Disagree Respectfully -- by Soul Pancake

I Am Afraid of Nearly Everything -- via Unitarian Universalist Association

The Danger of a Single Story -- by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Prayer #306: Instructions for Escaping the Cave

  1. Feel around in the dark.
  2. Find the stick of dynamite.
  3. Find the match.
  4. Find the spot on the cave wall that seems a shade less black than the false night surrounding you.
  5. Strike the match.
  6. Light the fuse.
  7. Place the dynamite near the hopeful spot.
  8. Don't retreat.
  9. Don't close your eyes.
  10. Don't cover your ears.
  11. Watch the stick explode.
  12. Feel the ground shudder.
  13. Absorb the shock of falling rocks.
  14. Note the jagged hole created.
  15. Crawl through.
  16. Bring your scrapes and bruises with you.
  17. Listen to the birds you could not hear before.
  18. Remember that they, and you, are alive.
  19. Rejoice.