From Compassion to Action
Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s health care address was plastered all over the media as if that was the most important thing that happened there.
What struck me about the speech was the wealthy, comfortable, well-dressed and well-fed crowd that sat in judgment. The well-insured crowd, apparently unmoved by the plight of millions of their constituents. I asked myself, “Where is their compassion?”
I was left with the impression that, once again, the “haves” are sitting pretty and turning a cold shoulder to the “have-nots.” I have the same feeling when I hear the shouting at the town hall debates and the tea party protests. Those who oppose reform generally already have coverage they’re satisfied with. It’s the “I’ve got mine, who cares about yours?” mentality that is so deeply troubling.
Some five hundred years before Jesus was born, Confucius preached the gospel of compassion as a means to transcendence. The concept of ren, or “loving others” is central to Confucian practice.
Several hundred years later, a Gentile told Rabbi Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
According to author Karen Armstrong, the Golden Rule and its ethos of compassion is the central, unifying concept in all the religions of the world. The Unitarian Universalist faith calls on followers to “promote and affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”
Compassion calls us to consider ourselves and our place in the world and requires that we step aside and to make room for others. This is what seems to be missing in the public debate over health care.
Compassion calls us to open the door to our heart and to allow another to enter that sacred space. To be compassionate we must be prepared to have our hearts broken. We cannot be at once compassionate and detached from the messiness of life.
Last Friday I picked up the newspaper to a front-page picture of Frank Marshall, an unemployed security guard whose circumstances unexpectedly forced him into a homeless shelter. Here was another moment of truth. Would I meet Frank’s eyes and allow myself to be moved by his story, or would I choose not to see him?
We are faced with this challenge every day. If we are to be compassionate people it is imperative that we dare to return the gaze of our fellow human beings and be moved to action by their stories. Action is what it’s all about. Why are we here if not to alleviate the suffering of others; to give voice to the voiceless, to transform ourselves and our world?
Our compassion for the plight of others – our willingness to see them, to be moved by them, and ultimately to stand alongside them – is the true expression of our own humanity, and our own divinity.