The other day I went to take a look at Charter for Compassion
, a site devoted to moving the world to better behavior. I felt moved to contribute as invited, and found they wouldn’t accept more than four sentences. Like many such blameless efforts, their approach is completely wrong. Yes they want us to donate our four sentences as well as whatever money we might spare their cause, but we are invited as spectators. The real work, they claim, is going to be done by World Leaders in every relevant sphere, primarily religion. In other words, the best result we can reasonably expect from this effort is that it might become a second-rate UN. As we might recognize by now, those folks are the cushiest slaves around, totally bound to the whims of their constituencies. This approach is the best, maybe the only way, to get the ink and the grants flowing, those necessary adjuncts to deliberate change. But if that’s all they do, the Charter for Compassion will remain a hollow mime show. They must actively involve the rest of us. We’ll make those world leaders see their way. No one else can do it.
If this is going to happen we can’t accept idle spectatorship of expensive posturing. It’s time to find out what you are.
Here's what I wrote for them, a good deal more than they'll accept:
With compassion we thrive.
Without it we die.
The news demonstrates this daily.
Our lives show it hourly.
Compassion is so fundamental to human existence that it is invisible, the prime environmental necessity, the air our souls breathe.
A thought experiment: isolate a human newborn from all human contact without exception. Lock it in a windowless room to which you keep the only key. Return in a week. What do you find?
I invoke this gruesome image only to demonstrate beyond any possibility of doubt or denial that we need each other. People can and do live extended lives in every environment the planet offers, but there remains an environment that, though not unique to our species, is nevertheless essential to it. The human environment, in whatever ecological zone you care to visit, is always the same: society. We can only live in it. It’s where we must live our entire lives; it’s the reason we live.
We need us. We need us before we need god. Humans all share another attribute: we all must be able to believe we matter, that our lives make some difference on some scale. God is there when our connections fail us. God validates us when our own actions don’t. This craving for recognition is the glue that holds us together, as groups and individuals, and it’s the root and basis of compassion.
Even capitalism has compassion at its base. All exchange functions on this principle and malfunctions in its lack.
These are all the simplest statements I can devise of truths we hold to be elf-evident, and we hold them all the time, if only in unconscious principle. They inform nearly all our actions, if only in the most banal, unthinking and abstract mode. Compassion only gets hard face to face.
Because that is the only place it really happens. If it’s not face to face it’s just TV. It takes actual practice in face-to-face compassion to be able to contemplate concepts like global famine, or even local unemployment, with real understanding of the million miseries that they contain. Check that; it may not be possible at all.
How will I know when I’ve practiced enough? That’s easy. I can’t. That fact might discourage you, unless you’ve learned in practice that compassion is really fun. That’s the secret that we all need to know.
“Compassion is fun” sounds absurd on its face. How can it be fun to really perceive other peoples’ pain? It must overwhelm you, consume all your strength to know about suffering directly and in detail. But it doesn’t, you know.
You’ve gotten this far living with some measure of pain. Are you overwhelmed? Whether you are or not, here’s where your practice needs to start: With yourself. You must begin to comprehend the nature and extent of the pain that spurs you to fear and rage before you can begin to experience the fun-becoming-bliss that is the practice of compassion. It’s why you’re here at all, and it is the reason for your life.
Compassion enters the world with recognition. There’s a story about a soldier in Wyoming, perhaps, before it was a state and the wars with Red Cloud, Little Crow, Sitting Bull had not played out, or only just. A Lakota woman huddled over her dead baby, wrapped in a blanket, weeping. The soldier remarked “Just like a redskin: pretendin theys human.”
What might he have suffered in the wars, the chain of command, life in a fort on desolate plains? Might his grief have come to compare with what the Lakota woman might have felt, losing her child in a captive world? The more important question though is what would it take for him to meet her as another human? How can we come to recognize in ourselves the recognition of the real others that’s available to us all the time anyway? It has to start with yourself. Any other way will never be real. Without the full experience of your own pain, before its energy converts to rage and fear, you will not grow the capacity to comprehend, accept, and forgive the pain that you feel, that you see, and that you cause. Everybody does all of those things, willingly or otherwise, and no amount of shame or blame will relieve them. Contrition, forgiveness, they’re part of recognition. Everything follows on knowing what you are.
If the soldier had been able to recognize that her grief was real, what new world might have opened up for them both?
When our communities grow from tribes to clans to cities to countries to the awkward contrivances imposed by global commerce every step is troublesome and frictional. Compassion has to grow to accommodate differences that present the potential dangers and unknown delights of unpredictability. It is unfailingly easy and seems always safe to assume the newcomer’s your enemy, to withhold from her the conscious chosen compassion that is the entire point. It’s the point especially when she really is the enemy and may be holding a knife in that blanket. Yes, it’s nice: yes it’s moral: yes it’s necessary. That’s what we pay NGO’s for, isn’t it? So we can get on with our own misery and let those Others stop bothering us with theirs?
And I ran out of gas. There's plenty more to say about this. Your own comments, arguments, rants are welcome. Maybe we can make this happen.
Copyright Ted Daniels 2008