Friday, July 14, 2017
On Compassion, Part One
We are living in a time when some basic assumptions about the condition of 'being human' are being called into question. And, in some quarters, qualities that had once been taken pretty much as basic to what makes us 'human' are even being shunned and abandoned. Foremost among these is the quality referred to as 'compassion'. Just so we are clear about what the term refers to, here is a dictionary definition:" A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."
That is pretty straight-forward. It means you care. When you begin to look at the world at large, and political realities in particular, you will notice that this is increasingly uncommon. It is certainly not an integral part of how people look at the suffering of others in these times. One might even say it is the stuff of the saintly souls among us, whereas it was once assumed that a person who was lacking compassion was somehow lacking, not complete, not a 'whole' human being. Whatever else they might have, if they didn't have a degree of compassion they were less than human. Compassion has been regarded by some as one of the defining characteristics that indeed makes one human. The term, 'inhumane' refers to this very deficit.
Perhaps the noticeable retrograde of compassion in our society has something to do with the constant bombardment of the news, and its ever improving ability to put high-definition images of great suffering in front of us...and to do it with 24/7 regularity. We see clips and photos of starving babies, drowned refugees, innocents being blown-up by militants...and on and on...on a daily basis. Obviously, there is plenty of suffering--heart-rending, dramatic, violent and mind-numbing--to go around. We are a species in extremis, by any reasonable definition. So, it is understandable that we do shut-out much of what is happening. War, famine and disease, extreme poverty are all happening on a world-wide scale that should tell us that we are not okay, as individuals or as a species.
Then you pile-on the news about what we are doing to our host planet. Unless you are an idiot or an ostrich, you know that the thousands of scientists who are monitoring, analyzing and documenting, the physical state of the planet are not all involved in a grand conspiracy to deceive us. If you are not a self-deceiver you know that we are well on the way to destroying earth's ability to support life as we know it, and because of our deep dependency on carbon-based energy sources, we are headed for a series of changes that are now widely understood and being referred to as The Sixth Great Extinction. And, it has the further distinction of being the only such scenario to be created by one of the species that will be extinguished: us.
ASIDE: If you are one of the people who still don't believe that science is 'factual' and that climate change is being caused by human activity....then you are probably not going to agree with or accept anything in this blog, and you might as well stop reading here. If you are inclined to troll me, don't bother; your words will have no audience here.
On top of all of this, we now look out on a political landscape in which the opposing sides are at each others' throats, and our elected president is being identified by some very authoritative sources as being 'unstable' and even 'mentally ill'. At the very least, his behavior is bizarre, immature and a source of morbid embarrassment to millions of Americans. So, is it any wonder that people are feeling negative and put upon by the sum total of what they observe around them these days?
Here's the thing, however: the worse things get, the more we need to make conscious decisions about how to conduct our lives. Otherwise, our most painful complaint will be a feeling of floating down a stream like an autumn leaf...helpless and out of control. As all of these factors interact to create deepening feelings of insecurity and fear, it becomes critically important to take control of not only our own lives, but to consider how others are getting along in their lives and make decisions about how to be a part of this community of souls we call a society. If we give in to our inclination to withdraw and to isolate ourselves.....we begin to slowly die inside. We are social creatures, whether we cop to it or not. Isolation is a form of punishment, even torture. (And we use it as such in the penal system, don't we?) When we decide--either consciously, or by default--to ignore the suffering of others, and take on the attitude of somebody like Ayn Rand, which says, essentially, "I've got mine, and it sucks to be you", we have begun the process of creating our own hell.
If you look at situations where pain and suffering were/are extreme and ubiquitous....for example, London during the Blitz in 1940....to have people not care about each other and just operate on some kind of self-preservation auto-pilot would multiply the misery and deepen the pain of being in such terrible circumstances. To take the position that "I'm okay...and I really don't give a tinker's damn about you." would be unconscionable. What actually happened in London was the exact opposite: people, with few exceptions, felt like they were all in it together and caring and kindness became commonplace. I had an aunt who was there with the Red Cross during the Blitz and her dominant memory in later years was of how heroic ordinary people were. Instead of destroying their spirits, it deepened their determination to survive and a part of that was the certainty born of knowing that they were in it together.
So, here we are in 2017, and it's beginning to look like it has the potential to become a Blitz of our own. Things are pretty good for most people as I write this, but in 2008 we learned that the idea of a stable economy and a predictable and rosy future is ephemeral. One major terrorist attack, one major financial hiccup, one earth-based disaster....the 'big one', as Californians call it, or a tsunami, or you name it....and all of this apparent stability is gone, gone, gone. And, as we saw, it can happen almost overnight.
And, despite the absence of some over-arching disaster, there are plenty of people who are already suffering. Do you need me to really explain how it feels to live in an inner-city neighborhood that has nightly gang shootings? Or what it is like to have a serious illness and not have adequate health care?
Do you want me to tell you how being extremely poor and without hope of changing that for your kids...grinds at your soul, day in and day out? Do you really want to live in a society where a large segment of the people are just written off as, unworthy of living decent lives....or of LIVING AT ALL?
For a society to succeed in the long term, it needs to have an awareness of itself as a whole. If a small part of it becomes isolated by means of having extreme affluence....and extreme poverty is the condition of an entire population, the formula for self-destruction is in place. Don't take my word for it, read the history books. When an elite part of society loves only itself and ceases to care about the base of the pyramid....compassion is no longer in the mix, and its counter-part is going to grow strong: hatred, resentment...and eventually violence. Because people who do not have a sense of meaning in their lives, and who find themselves without HOPE.....will not ever just fade away. They will not go quietly into the night.
Bastille Day, 2017