5 Things: 5 Obstacles to Compassionate Action
• We perceive ourselves as being powerless — Earlier this week I came across this article, by Baltimore investigative journalist, Mariya Strauss, “Women Working Dangerously In Bangladesh’s Garment Factories: Who Will Make it Stop?" When I read it I felt, as I do reading so much of the news these days, totally powerless. When something horrific happens, it’s easy to feel small. But worth consideration is discerning the distinction between when I am truly powerless and when I am powerless only because I’ve chosen it. No one person can do everything, of course, but when I allow the illusion of powerlessness to cloud my culpability in issues of injustice, I fail to live up to being the person I want to be.
• We assume someone else is helping — This is a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility or the bystander effect, which suggest that once a group of witnesses reaches a certain size, each individual is less likely to take action. This can be true for significant and small events. Though this is an observed behavior, we needn’t be imprisoned by it. What might each of us do in order to resist this impulse?
• We assume there is no problem — One example is the way our individual cultural experiences (of whiteness, of heterosexuality, of affluence) keep us from knowing or understanding issues that could benefit from our compassionate action. I must seek my own education regarding issues my life doesn’t require me to pay attention to.
• We don’t know how — This one requires not only education, but also courage.
• We don’t have time — In an oft-told Princeton study by John Darley and Daniel Batson, they concluded that feeling time pressure was corrosive to a natural compassionate impulse. Seminary students sent to a building for a test encountered a man in distress. Those who had been told to hurry, who felt time pressure, were less likely to stop than those who weren’t given time constraints. Since one of the hallmarks of our age is the ever-present feeling of time pressure, one can only imagine how this might relate to our capacity for compassionate action.
Heart to Heart
a story by Becky Brooks for the Breads of the World service at First Unitarian Church, Nov. 17, 2013
Once upon a time there was a woman who lived in a land that was a little like ours, only with dragons and a lively troll community. When she was young, she suffered a heartbreak. Her sadness ripped a jagged hole in her heart and every time it beat (tha-thump, tha-thump) it hurt. So she did what everyone else in this land did when their heart hurt so bad, she removed it. She put it in a nice wooden box, in a nice velvet bag, and toted it around with her wherever she went. She did that for thirty years. And, over time, she noticed that she had begun to miss having a heart. She began to wonder if there was a way to put it back. So she took the box out of the bag, unhooked the latch on the box, and pulled out the heart. It looked so pitiful, laying in her hands, torn nearly in two. She tried to put it back, but there was no opening in her chest where it could go. It was such a puzzle, she took it to a wise woman she knew who lived on the outskirts of her town.
“Tell me, wise one,” she said, “How might I return my heart to where it belongs?”
The wise one had heard this problem many times before and had a quick, simple answer: “You must find a heart that matches yours. Then your life will open and your heart may be returned.”
“But how will I find a matching heart?”
“How do we find anything, dear one? We seek.”
And so she did. For one whole year, she went door-to-door and held out her heart in her hands and said, “Excuse me, do you have a heart like this? I’m trying to return mine and need to find a match.” And for a whole year, heads were shook and doors were shut.
At the end of the year she went back to the wise woman to plead with her for another option. “Please, wise one, this isn’t working. I don’t think there is a heart that matches mine.”
“Oh child, there is. Keep looking. I promise you there is.”
The very next day, at the very first door, she tried again, “Excuse me,” she said, “I’m looking for a heart—“ and the young man who had answered the door interrupted to cry out, “Me too!” He pulled his own heart out from his own nice wooden box and held it in his hands. She looked closely at his heart, and he looked closely at hers. “Oh dear,” she said, “Yours is broken in two.”
“Yes,” said the young man.
“How did it happen?” she asked. He told her the story of the death of his father and his deep sadness. When his story had ended, they both had tears in their eyes and on their cheeks. “I’m so sorry about your father,” she said. “Me too,” he said, “I’m sorry our hearts don’t match. Maybe you’ll have better luck next door. But thank you for listening to me.”
She hugged him and said goodbye and went to the next house.
“Hello,” she said to the old woman who answered the door. “How is your heart?” she asked.
“Sore,” said the old woman. She opened her own small wooden box and brought out her heart. She held it between them.
“There are so many little holes. Tell me about them?” The old woman invited her in and they sat drinking tea while she told her the stories of her heart. Before they knew it, the room had gotten dim with the setting sun. The old woman smiled and thanked her companion. “Thank you so much for listening to the stories my life,” she said, “I’m sorry our hearts don’t match. I wish you every good luck in your quest.”
“Thank you.” They hugged and the woman waved her goodbyes. She was so tired she went right home and slept soundly.
The next morning she continued her search. Behind every door her question, “How is your heart” was met with stories that brought her to tears. Hands were held, tears were wept, hugs were given. For a full year she did this, questing for a heart that matched her own, listening to the stories of her neighbors.
The thought crossed her mind to revisit the wise one. Could it be that there was no heart that exactly matched her own? Though so many were likewise broken and bent and filled with holes? She took her nice wooden box out of its nice velvet bag and opened it with a sigh. It was empty. Her heart wasn’t there. She took a deep breath in the stillness of the morning and heard tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump. She put her hand on her chest to feel it.
She could have listened to her own heart all day. But she didn’t. She had a full day ahead of her of people to visit and stories to hear. Of hands to hold and tears to weep and hugs to give.
And so it was. Blessed be.
Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Plato (or maybe someone else)
5 Things: Heroes of Compassion
—Don’t mind the rocky edits—they’re better than the extra two minutes I took out :)
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
As close as this piece of music is to the hearts of so many UUs, its songwriter is something of an enigma. Little has been written about Carolyn McDade. We think of her as ours and often identify her as a UU songwriter, but for the past two decades she has had little formal contact with the denomination. And the tellings of the story behind “Spirit of Life” have not always agreed on the facts. Here is her story.
We are believers. We believe in intellectual freedom; we believe in justice; we believe in compassion and concern for each other and the whole world. We believe in commitment to those ideals which make us caring and active in the struggles for human dignity.
Together may we walk the path of justice, speak words of love, live the selfless deed, trod gently upon the earth, and fill the world with compassion.
Some complain that Unitarian Universalism today lacks an authentic core or center. I believe that loving-kindness can, must, be the warm heart of our living faith. Without it we can neither honor each individual’s inherent worth and dignity not accept and encourage one another. I know that Unitarian Universalists share the deep hunger in our troubled society for loving-kindness. I once asked a lawyer in my congregation why he comes to church, and without hesitation he replied, “for the opportunity to be kind.” Kindness is the immediate expression of love, and as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, “We must love another or die.
To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It’s not done because people deserve it, it’s done because they need it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season 2 Episode 19
"I Only Have Eyes for You"