Compassion Examined: beyond the start


In a recent blog, Compassion Examined: A Start, I made reference to the inspirational words said by Dr King in 1967 and, as I set them out, I suddenly became completely overwhelmed by the enormity of  re-building the road to Jericho: “It comes to see,” he said, “that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This transformation and re-structuring is massive: it takes in a universal understanding of compassion at every level and in every cell. Its breadth is breath-taking.

I want to apply it to our personal and professional lives and to give a new dimension to the ‘good Samaritan’ so it is well worth re-quoting:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (“A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church, Martin Luther King)

Initial acts are fine and we have to make a start but, I think, our personal journeys down the road to Jericho probably need large doses of re-imagination. Our personal will intersect with our professional and if we claim to be compassionate, then there must be alignment between what happens in both spheres.

However, before we bring in the heavy equipment and the land-surveyors and the road experts to re-build the road, we possibly need a chance to think carefully about what we are needing to do. The task is daunting.

We start by considering our human condition: ‘here we suffer grief and pain and next door they do the same’ is probably the best way to become aware of what this means at the very basic level. Simply acknowledging that we all, in our own way, suffer and struggle is a clear and simple act of openness and being receptive to a wider view of our shared humanity. Its the opportunity to ventilate and allow oxygen in. Put simply, it is about being expansive.

We start too by considering what compassion means and how it is beyond empathy and that it requires boundaries. Just saying this is huge.

In the TED talk, Krista Tippett renews her faith with the word and colours it correctly so with kindness.

Compassion is a piece of vocabulary that could change us if we truly let it sink into the standards to which we hold ourselves and others, both in our private and in our civic spaces. So what is it, three-dimensionally? What are its kindred and component parts? What’s in its universe of attendant virtues? To start simply, I want to say that compassion is kind.

And then there is curiosity:

Compassion is also curious. Compassion cultivates and practices curiosity.

She makes reference to the work of others who talk about “curiosity without assumptions.” This is a lovely way to indicate receptiveness without judgement and wanting to know the other.

But this part of the understanding reaches into the very heart of the harder work, generosity and being present with the other.

Compassion can be synonymous with empathy. It can be joined with the harder work of forgiveness and reconciliation, but it can also express itself in the simple act of presence. It’s linked to practical virtues like generosity and hospitality and just being there, just showing up.

But Krista doesn’t leave it there – she is able to go into its very heart where beauty and mystery inhabits this universe.

I think that compassion also is often linked to beauty — and by that I mean a willingness to see beauty in the other, not just what it is about them that might need helping. I love it that my Muslim conversation partners often speak of beauty as a core moral value. And in that light, for the religious, compassion also brings us into the territory of mystery — encouraging us not just to see beauty, but perhaps also to look for the face of God in the moment of suffering, in the face of a stranger, in the face of the vibrant religious other.

This seems to be the shared humanity and it seems key that it happens when get the idea of suffering. 

Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.

If I have learned anything, our problems are our greatest teachers and the richest source of rising to all the virtues.  Life is the guru. We learn from our brokenness and the difficult, tricky stuff – that is where we learn compassion.

However, this spiritual pathway, this road to Jericho, this whatever … has to be curated with great care because as Krista warns, “Compassion can’t be reduced to sainthood any more than it can be reduced to pity.” It inhabits a much wider space and it is here we can begin to re-imagine, re-build and to transform.



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