Our Calling to be Compassionate

Call to compassionIf you’re one of my American listeners it would be hard to have missed the recent events in Ferguson and New York that have reignited the discussion about race and poverty. There has been no shortage of opinions and outrage and it has been somewhat discouraging. I fear that in our need to be right (or aligned with those we consider to be in the right) we have overlooked our calling to be compassionate; a calling suggested by no lesser than Jesus and the Buddha.

Last week’s article by Gina Crosley-Corcoran about poverty and privilege gave an insightful and much-needed reminder of the barriers many people face. Yet even posts like this seem to bring out a defensiveness in people, a “Hey, I didn’t have it so good either!” mentality that I think misses the bigger picture. These conversations are not about excusing behavior. It’s not about deciding if Michael Brown was a criminal or if the police were in the wrong. Yes, those conversations are being had, but the bigger conversation is about getting to the root causes and why one person will do something most of us would never dream of. What are the circumstances of a person’s life that can push them over the edge? Why would so many of us say we would never rob a convenience store or murder another human being and yet some of us still do? Are these people really just bad seeds or was there something that we never had to deal with that tipped them down the wrong side of the slope?

What these conversations are calling for is compassion. Not acceptance of actions we agree are bad, but compassion for the people who face a struggle. It may be a struggle similar to our own or one completely different. The former is so much easier to accept, isn’t it? We see someone who was abused as we were and we can feel for what they’re going through. Someone who just went through a difficult divorce can draw our sympathy because we’ve gone through the same.

Having compassion for someone whose experiences do not mirror our own is more difficult but much more important. And it strikes me as odd how quick we can be to change the conversation to put ourselves “in the right”. That guy was sexually abused as a kid? Well, so was I and I turned out fine! That’s ego talking: not wanting to see ourselves in a less-than-stellar light; not wanting to find our arguments on shaky ground. It’s this ego of ours that continues to get in the way of our progress.

This being a holiday season in the West – Christmas being the big one, but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and others – we are called now more than ever to love one another and show compassion. In that spirit I encourage all of us to pay attention when our ego steps up and gets in the way of our being compassionate. Having love for one another doesn’t mean we’re letting ourselves get taken advantage of. It doesn’t mean we’re excusing antisocial behavior. It doesn’t mean we’re handing over the control of our own lives to someone else. It means believing that humans are naturally good but that some circumstances – stressors – can push people into antisocial behavior and, if we want to reduce these occurrences, simple policing and punishment isn’t sufficient.

Remember, peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.

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