Some Thoughts about Compassion
With thanks to Reverend Lisa Caton, of Princeton, NJ, who inspires me
A young woman whose native language is Haitian Creole moves to the United States into a neighborhood that is predominantly African-American. She acquires English in the African- American Vernacular dialect, also known as Black English. She makes a friend. She’s on the phone with him when he is murdered. She’s called as a witness and on the witness stand speaks in the dialect of English she knows. She is ridiculed by the defense attorney and by the media as stupid because she doesn’t speak a prestige dialect of English, even though she is bilingual (and many of them are probably monolingual).
A man with serious heart disease who has limited ability to walk is given a handicapped parking permit by the state authorities where he lives. He parks in a handicapped spot at the supermarket. People scream at him that he has taken a handicapped spot from someone “more deserving” even though he has a handicapped parking permit. They can’t see his invisible disability.
A college student is speaking Arabic on his cell phone on an airplane still parked at the jetway at a California airport as passengers are still boarding. The fact that he is speaking Arabic makes some people nervous. The crew removes him from the plane, even though he poses no threat.
White college students at a campus in the northeast tell one of their peers, an African American woman, to go back to Africa, even though she’s never been there before. She’s from New Jersey.
A Latina student at a college uses the word “hence” in an essay submitted for a class and the professor circles it and marks the word as “not your language,” even though she’s going to college, in part, to learn to express herself in writing in sophisticated ways.
The family of a fallen soldier is going to his funeral. Due to a delay on the first leg of their flight, they have a tight connection in the airport. The crew of their first flight asks everyone to stay in their seats while this family exits first so they can make their connecting flight. Passengers express their anger at this family, even though they are going to the funeral of their son and brother.
Two men walking on the street in a major American city are viciously attacked by a group of three people who attack them just because they were holding hands.
An American college professor’s home is vandalized: a swastika is painted on it and a note left telling the professor and his family that they should all die in gas chambers …
even though this is the 21st century and America is a place where people are supposed to be endowed with certain inalienable rights and that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for all of us.
These events occur in a larger cultural context of incivility. Each of us has probably had moments of impatience with another, when we wanted or needed patience for ourselves. We’ve all probably had moments of judging others, when we’ve wanted others not to judge us.
Each of us bears our own emotional scars, some deeper than others. Each of us is deserving of love, respect, forgiveness, and compassion.
What we need most as a nation, as a community of nations, as the human community, is to rediscover the compassion that is at the core of our essence as humans. Babies are born with compassion: it is a human instinct. All the world religions, ethical, and spiritual traditions teach compassion. We must all try to show compassion and in so doing inspire others to show compassion as well, as so many wise men and women of different traditions have taught in different ways (see especially Chapter 1 of Karen Armstrong’s 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life).
It’s one thing when a public official opposed to marriage equality changes his mind when his own son comes out as gay; it’s another thing entirely when a public official supports marriage equality because people who identify as LGBTQ are all someone’s children.
As an educator, as a father, and as a human being: I try to show compassion every day. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I hope you will, too. Consider starting by signing the Charter for Compassion.