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Redefining compassion

The poor refugees, the poor victims, the poor poor, the poor veterans, the poor homeless. The deluge of compassion on tv, Facebook, and in speeches feels to me without heft and I drift right past them.
In a TED talk well worth watching, Krista Tippett, the host of the NPR’s  “On Being,” calls the present interpretation of compassion “hollowed out…a squishy, kumbaya kind of thing.” She dissects the word into its component parts – kindness, curiosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, the “simple act of presence,” and a willingness to see beauty. At the end of her talk she optimistically includes “tenderness.”
I would add Maya Angelou’s opinion that “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Combine a full expression of compassion with courage and the world begins to change.
It takes courage to be kind to the unwanted. Children learn this at an early age. Adults can get comfortable in their social circles and forget to reach outside them, if only to practice kindness.
It takes a deep version of curiosity to listen as Uncle Mack rants and raves his way through his affection for his guns. The Bible advises us to “know thine enemy.” Could that suggest that we should listen carefully to our political enemies? “Know thine enemy” can be read as an injunction to prepare for battle, but it also can mean that without knowing the enemy, there can be no peace.
Forgiveness is hard enough, reconciliation is even harder – the work of decades sometimes, as in South Africa. The personal version of forgiveness and reconciliation is just as hard as the communal kind.
The “simple act of presence,” requires more than a quick text or phone call. Your presence may be needed at a time when it is not convenient for you; other priorities and other people may have to suffer. It is not “simple” at all.
The beauty component of compassion was mysterious to me, but then I thought of the handful of times when I have stopped to talk with a homeless person and heard an unexpected tale of endurance and ingenuity. Or read the essays of 18-year-old students that moved me to tears. Beauty is extra-beautiful when it surprises you.
Tippett reminded her listeners that such models of compassion as Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Day, and Gandhi were flawed human beings. My flaw lies most egregiously in the “being present” component of compassion.
Even Tippett’s definition remains passive. We need to add some muscle. If you listen to Uncle Mack, you have the right to require that Uncle Mack listens back. Forgiveness may require bold truth telling which is anything but passive. The simple act of presence might require toughness and discipline. And sometimes you have to trudge through a lot of ugliness to find the nugget of beauty. That’s where courage comes in again.
With the world spiraling into a frightening space, I agree with Tippett that we should rise above the adjectives “tolerant,” “polite,” and “courteous” to value the more nuanced and demanding virtue of compassion, and we must practice it with courage and consistency.