Radical Compassion for True Social Change
As we all head into the fall and begin the new academic year, the summer has given me a few insights that I wish to share. I know that these thoughts are just a glimpse of a much larger world, so I do try to keep these insights in a larger perspective.
This past June and July gave me the chance to do my first in person work since February of 2020. To say that much has changed since then is a massive understatement. What those sessions have taught me is that there is a great deal of unacknowledged angst living within us.
The weight of the last 20 months have put into stark focus the ills and consequences of taking our blessings for granted or hiding inside them; and ignoring the hurt that others have been begging us to see and help with.
I have seen it play out in workshops sessions were people, regardless of intention, are more emotionally raw than they realized. It expressed itself as people taking the words that would be considered benign in almost any other circumstance taken with deep offense. I have seen it happen within and across racial lines. So many, so anxious or angry that conclusions are drawn out of inference and assumption.
For all the heat and angst and frustration. For all the needed change that most people believe is necessary. As we start the new school year and more deeply engage with racial, gender, social and other reckonings, HOW we deal with these issues will always mean more than what we deal with. To this point I only have two requests to keep in mind going forward:
1. TAKE A BREATH (MAYBE EVEN A FEW)
2. ASK YOUSELF WHAT YOU WANT OUT OF THIS ENCOUNTER
For my part, I always try to focus on being as compassionate as I can. It is not always easy, but I believe that it is the best way to speak, hear and listen. I had to say the first one to myself more than a few times in sessions this summer. I found myself saying the second to others more than a few times.
The thought has been to BE the world that I wish to live in as much as I can. I know that is not the world I live in most of the time, but G-D help me if I forget why it is important to try. G-D help us all.
Several years ago, I wrote the below disclaimer in the hope of getting people to better understand why compassion is a living breathing verb. It is an action that humanity is doomed without. I added a bit to it last year. The words seem to mean as much now as they did when I wrote them.
I hope they have meaning for you.
See you this fall.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”
We have and always will live in an awkward balance between our “best” self and our “real” self. This is true for us on every level. Be it individualism, community, culture, or country. The rift is always there.
How we treat people takes on more meaning the bigger the group gets. It is sometimes easy to explain the cruelty of an individual or small group, but when it comes to country or culture, we can all get swept away in scale. It becomes easier to do bad because individuals find anonymity in a mob. Individuals can abdicate responsibility to the group. We do not have to question ourselves as much because we may not believe everything the “group” believes, so I can’t be held responsible of their worst. Anyway, how can we influence so many?
Yet that is what we must do to keep the worst elements of human behavior at bay.
We tend to forget that most every group starts small.
“It is part of our nature as human beings – whether as individual groups or societies that we create “pasts” in which we can live…
If anything, our historic memory is as malleable as our personal one”
Death in a Promised Land (The Story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre)
We must take honest, personal responsibility for the worlds we inhabit. We do it through humility. We do it through education. We do it through studying the art of dialogue. We do it through patience and, most of all, through compassion.
“a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
It must be compassion that washes over every inch of ourselves as much as it can. For as long as it can. For everyone. Especially when it is most difficult. Make no mistake, this is not easy. Especially in a world that conspires to make us move fast and see only what we like seeing. It has always been my belief that the speed of life conspires against our humanity.
The first part of the definition of compassion, “a feeling of deep sympathy”, we manage well enough. It is that second half, “the desire to alleviate suffering” where we fall painfully short. The small and large conspiracies of conscience that lead to inaction is, in great part, why we are here in this all too terrible societal moment.
We got here together. Some kicking and screaming. Some screaming but unheard. Most of us blind accomplices to the crimes that were perpetrated on others. To focused on the self. But make no mistake; we were all there. That is the only way we are going to get out of it.
Right now, the fire is hot, the fear is high. Angst is informing so much because this is the way we are forced to deal with our problems. The weight of the last 20 months has taken a seen and unseen toll on us all. The pandemic acted as an emotional staging ground that launched the current social movement triggered by the death of George Floyd. His was just the most visible in a long line tragedies that far too many so-called good people chose to ignore.
Maybe it felt too hard. You could not find the language to express whatever that thing was that seemed ….so much. Maybe you did not see it as your issue and it was easier to relegate it to “one off” status….again. Maybe you just did not care. Everybody has problems. I’m doing me. You do…..something. For all those reasons and a million more, this is why were are here right now.
It did not have to be this way. For all the righteous outcry and rage that is expressing itself right now; for even the fear and dred that lives inside too many, I want everyone to know this:
I am your ally.
For all of you who suffered, I am sorry for my part in the pain you have had to endure.
For all those who care but did not know how to take that care from your heart to your hands, I am sorry I was not a better teacher. I hope this helps you to understand how much work we have to do.
For all of those still in doubt or disagreement about the nature of the pain of so many, I am sorry that I could not better touch your heart for the sake of others. I will keep checking on you because you too are my responsibility.
No matter who you are, I do not want to leave you behind. For all those who have and continue to suffer in whatever way, I’m coming to help fill the space that neglect, apathy, and indifference have allowed to grow. In my own small way, I will fill that space with...myself.
My most compassionate self.
It is in that space that I do not want a single person, white, black, LGBTQAI, or straight, faithful or faith-less, young or old, or whomever you feel you are along. The last thing I want for you is to go into anger, self-hate and loathing about our national sins or the people who make up this country.
For anyone who does want you to feel bad, they have a ton to learn as well. I am here to teach them as best as I can.
Let me be clear about this. Nobody gets out of this a living, moving spirit by continuing to pass the sickness of hate, ignorance, revenge, and recrimination forward. If the lessons of this moment and our shared past are to be best learned they must be learned compassionately. They must be shared compassionately in both the giving and the taking. This is where trying to communicate our best selves to our real selves should always live.
Possibly the most incredible gifts humanity was ever given is the ability to heal through the simple act of dialogue. It can heal a person’s body, mind, and spirit. It may be the only thing that can save a nation such as ours. But you have to want it. If you do, that is where you will find me. That is where I will be coming from.
We must fill our vessels of fear and doubt with the light of courage and knowledge till they shatter.
Only then will we become more genuinely whole.