Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Compassion is based on an awareness of our interdependence

Most human beings don't like to see other human beings, or animals for that matter, suffer. Seeing other people suffer makes us suffer too. In the helping professions, this exposure to others suffering is called "vicarious traumatization." Sometimes it can be called "compassion fatigue." While as Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in  human relations there is only so much we can take before we turn a blind eye. After all we have to take care of ourselves because if we can't function, we won't be any good for anyone else either.

This whole thing about compassion sounds good, but really, how practical is it if I am to maintain the life style to which I have become accustomed, and now I think I deserve? The rich young man goes to Jesus and asks Him what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The young man insists that he already does this and something is still missing, and Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him. And then the story says, that the young man became very sad for he had many possessions, and he went away. Don't we all turn away at this point. We try to be just, and equitable, but this compassion thing just takes us too far down a road we don't want to and are unwilling to go.

People are dying of starvation around the world and Americans spend more money on pet food and lawn fertilizer than any nation in the world. What's up with that? When projects of social uplift are recommended, people, with a sense of fright, complain about their high taxes. We want to keep what's ours and resent having to help people less fortunate.

What we fail to recognize is that we are all in this thing called life together. The Universalists have it right with their insight that our brothers and sisters are part of us. As John Dunne wrote in his famous poem, no man is an island, as much as we like to think of ourselves as separate, apart, and not connected to the suffering of the fellow humans on our planet, we are even if we don't recognize it. If you doubt our insistence on the illusion of separateness, consider the panic and nastiness over immigration. If we truly believed that we are one humanity on this planet why even have national borders that are enforced at all?

When we overcome our tribal, chauvinistic mentality we realize that "we are our neighbor's keeper, because our neighbor is but our larger self" as UU Minister, David Rys Williams, is to have said according to Richard Gilbert in his essay "Justice, Equity, and Compassion in Human Relations" in With Purpose And Principle. We recognize our interdependence when we exude compassion because we realize that what we do for our brothers and sisters we do for ourselves. When we care for another, we first and foremost care for ourselves, and nurture within ourselves that which makes us most human. It is this recognition that what we do for another, at a deep level we do for ourselves, that makes us better people and is the basis of a deep spiritual compassion.

It says in A Course Of Miracles that the purpose of life is to bring about the Atonement, At-One-Ment which I define as "when everyone loves everyone all the time." A crucial activity to achieve the At-One-Ment is practicing compassion which we UUs covenant to affirm and promote.


  1. As a libertarian I don't agree with this nonsense about taking care of your brother. People swim or sink on their own merit and I don't owe other people anything. The slovenly and dependent would love to suck off the teat of humanity if they could, but God helps those who help themselves and taking care of the slackers only enables their laziness and stupidity.

    People should realize there is no such thing as a free lunch. You want to eat you got to work as they say. Taking pity is a form of weakness and it's no wonder Unitarianism is such a small sect because its principles are not socially viable especially this crap about compassion. If you want to succeed as a religion you better toughen up.

  2. Katie CarmichaelJuly 8, 2014 at 9:58 PM

    What do you think about Karen Armstrong's movement for charterforcompassion.org? I think Armstrong started it with a 100,000.00 TED prize back in 2008. She hopes to make compassion active around the world.