According to Merriam-Webster the definition of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”. Action is not necessary for compassion to exist. and certainly not all kind acts arise from compassion. With most tragedies, my ability to act is limited – sometimes just to donating money, oftentimes to writing. Sharing memories of places in happier times, asking people to think about how they can make a difference globally by making a difference in their own piece of the universe. A reminder of the deeper meaning to be found in Lao Tzu’s words on peace:
“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.”
― Lao Tzu
It needs to start with us, individually, in our own space. And like the ripples on a pond, it radiates out from there.
It is, perhaps, ironic that my original plan for this post was a broader sociological view on the necessity of compassion for the survival of a society. But my plans were thrown off track a bit by the murders of 9 people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the night of June 17. So, with a very heavy heart, I’m writing now with a slightly narrower focus.
I have spent much time, and effort, over the years writing, venting, about how we, in the US, have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we are deeply divided. And that willful ignorance seems to be our new national direction. We are being manipulated, and we don’t seem to care.
And alarmingly, over the past few days, I’ve heard repeatedly that prior to the election of President Obama in 2008, we did not have a ‘Liberal v Conservative’, or ‘Black v White’ problem in this country. WTF?! Under which rock was it necessary to have lived for the past 30 years to believe that was true? The rise of hate talk radio in the 1980’s. George Dukakis being derided as a ‘card carrying member of the ACLU’ in which presidential race? And it didn’t start in the ’80s. It’s an extension of something that has always run, and will likely always run, through our political system – most political systems – because it is human nature. It grew in the 1960’s as we boomers began to come of age in a new world – one with the potential to destroy us all. And then, unfortunately, as our technology changed and grew, our new normal became mass communication and instant access to information. And those divides have become magnified. In the speed of light. And that has made it easier to manipulate our emotions.
“‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Queen & David Bowie “Under Pressure“
The simple fact of the matter is that we DO have a race problem in the US. A magic wand was not waved with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We have a problem that has long been simmering, and occasionally flaring. And sadly, I honestly believe that it has seemed to have become worse since President Obama took office – but NOT because he is willing to, occasionally, address it. Even living in the ostensibly ‘liberal’ northeast, I see far too many “put the white back in the white house” bumper stickers and tee shirts for comfort. And a sudden, and alarming, increase in NRA sponsored 2nd Amendment bumper stickers, and, oddly, Confederate battle flags. Seriously, people?
On June 17th, a young man, surely disturbed, killed nine people in cold blood inside a church because he apparently didn’t just hate blacks, but wanted to start a race war. The fact that Fox News, and a couple of Republican presidential wannabe’s seem to think that this was an anti-Christian attack, and are willing to jump through many hoops to avoid acknowledging that it was racist is astonishing. The fact that Rick Perry managed to refer to a cold-blooded, premeditated, mass murder as an ‘accident’ is downright bizarre. I feel like I’ve stepped into a Salvador Dali painting. Or perhaps MC Escher.
And yet, the families of the victims are expressing forgiveness. And I admire that. But forgiveness does not equal acceptance, or forgetting. And metaphoric forgiveness, does not excuse what happened or mean that there is no severe legal ramification. And it does not mean that we, as a nation, get to pretend that this proves that racism is dead in this country because, unlike the Alabama church bombing in 1963 that stole the lives of 4 young girls, our leaders are willing to acknowledge that it was racially motivated. Except, apparently, for most of the Republican presidential candidate field.
Following the shooting, the US flag, and the SC state flag, were flown at half-mast, but the Confederate battle flag that adorns the Capitol? Nope, not that one. In a single photo, a scary portrait was painted of a state that values its role in an, unsuccessful, treasonous war of secession more than it does the lives of 9 people gunned down in a church the day before. The same state that was unable to agree on a state fossil without wanting to include a Biblical reference, and wants to include a mandatory several week course of study on the 2nd Amendment in public schools for every grade, has clearly got its priorities skewed. But US Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from SC, says well, it’s not really a racist symbol, even though many people view it that way – it’s part of the state’s heritage. Yes, the treasonous part. Stop pretending that flying that flag on the grounds of the state Capitol is anything but a bit of in-your-face aggressive posturing. The Civil War was a complex thing that was about many things, including, but not limited to slavery, so yes, that flag is more than racist. But none of it is good.
If we want to start getting along, and cure racism, one of the things we need to do is NOT flag the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of any state Capitol. Germany and France both banned Nazi memorabilia after WWII – do we clearly understand that there was a reason? We, as a free speech loving nation, do not ban the use, sale, or display of Nazi memorabilia, or copies of. And as a result, too many groups seem to think that swastikas, and confederate flags, are great way to get their point across. And that point is not pretty. In spite of the white supremacist groups trying to back far away from this shooting.
I do have a great deal of respect for the 1st Amendment, and I agree that symbols cannot, and should not, be banned. We can only avoid repeating the past when we learn from it. But it is wildly inappropriate for States to actually promote their official use.
“Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step i take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.”
Sy Miller & Jill Jackson “Let There Be Peace On Earth“
Nothing can change until we are willing to acknowledge that there is a problem. Like an addict, we have to recognize the problem, and want to address it, in order to fix it.
And, although none of us have the capability to change the world on our own, we do have the ability to make our own corner of the universe a better place. And as more pieces get better, the whole becomes better, and stronger. And we have to try. Compassion compels us to act. I can only directly impact those that I interact with, but I can hope to have a broader impact, indirectly, by continuing to write. About compassion, about injustice, about choosing NOT to be ignorant. Even when it seems, to borrow a line from Ian Anderson “my words but a whisper, your deafness a shout”. And to keep promoting the Charter for Compassion, in the hopes that more an more people will take it to heart:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.