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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

Compassion Starts Now

Compassion has had a rough time the past couple of years. All kinds of callousness and indifference to the sufferings of others have become normal in the most disappointing ways.

One particularly disturbing trend is idea that compassion is synonymous with weakness. That helping someone less fortunate makes you soft or gullible. This always lurked in the background, but we have somehow given it license to run around naked with its hair on fire.

We all pick and choose what we will tolerate. Some of us can tolerate mass shootings of innocent people by disturbed minds, in return for their being able to own their own guns.

Some of us tolerate abortion, reframing it as a women's rights issue and not one about the life of a human being in the womb. Various creative definitions of when a 'fetus' becomes a 'person' compete to support the views of those who are 'pro-life' and those who are 'pro-choice.'

And some of us tolerate the cruelty and viciousness currently occuring on the U.S. southern border in return for 'security,' 'jobs,' or 'protecting our way of life.' There are creative definitions of these terms as well.

Some of us rail against the LGBTQ+ community and their 'lifestyle' which is 'inconsistent with various 'church teachings,' while at the same time, engaging in other 'abominations' including adultery, sodomy, abuse, and all flavors of exploitation.

When this many emotional, complex and intensely personal issues are out and about, the potential for hypocrisy rises and becomes inevitable.

People who are pro-choice advocates plead for the protection of children in custody at the border, and plead even more passionately for 'a woman's right to choose.' Which children are you standing up for?

People who are pro-life supporters plead for the lives of unborn babies, while simultaneously advocating capital punishment and the separation of families at the border. Is every life really sacred?

In matters like these, the sanctimonious refusal to discuss any sort of compromise eventually breeds contempt and disdain for those who disagree. This is true on the left, right, center, top, bottom and all sides. Compromise is tantamount to surrender of our hard-won (or claimed) moral high ground. Compassion and understanding is surrender. And surrender, like failure, is not an option.

There are undoubtedly well-meaning, pure-hearted people on all sides of any important issue. There are also loud-mouthed demagogues, who exploit passions for their own purposes, which have no interest in either side's position, on all sides. They are in it for themselves.

God knows what, and who, is right. (When you read that, did you assume the author's exasperation? It is far from that.) God does know what is right, and who is advocating for it with pure hearts and noble intentions. He understands complexity and He also understands the kind of moralistic gymnastics it takes to justify some of these opinions. And He sees through them.

If you are a gun owner, you can allow yourself to see the anguish and fear that guns cause some people. It's okay to see it and empathize with it, even if you don't agree that it's a reason to rein in gun rights. You don't need to invalidate the other side's character in order to validate your opinion.

If you are an abortion rights advocate, you can allow for the possibility that aborting an unborn child is, at some stage, morally wrong. It's okay to see it and empathize with the idea, even if it doesn't change your position. You don't need to invalidate the other side's character in order to validate your opinion.

The tone of our discourse, on matters important and un-, has become personal, angry, combative and disrespectful. We no longer solve problems. We fold our arms and hold our breath. We take our ball and go home.

This is okay for 'matters' that don't really matter - the Red Sox pitching woes, whether the Stones should quit touring because their in their late 70s are two examples.

But for matters that really matter - problems that must be solved - we cannot simply unhook ourselves from one another. Even the adage 'agree to disagree' requires a meeting of minds.

In the 80's, there were no two more polar opposites, politically, than Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan. They didn't seem to agree on anything. They were natural adversaries.

There was frustration. There was gamesmanship. There were harsh words, although nothing like we see today. There were attempts to influence public opinion, both directly and through the use of surrogates. Both men had the power and the organization to be a challenge to the other. The pushing and shoving of democracy.

Watching the news, as they covered the back and forth on matters like defense, nuclear energy and weapons, budget cuts, 'entitlement' spending, the benefits of welfare and the like, you would assume these two men could not be left alone in a room for 2 minutes before gunfire would erupt.

You would be wrong. The President and the Speaker were adversaries. Tip and Ronnie were friends. So were their wives, Millie and Nancy. They frequently ate dinner together at the White House, usually on Sundays. Sometimes with Millie and Nancy, sometimes without.

These were two men who had few obvious things in common: Ronnie, a westerner, conservative Republican, Presbyterian, former movie star, rancher and Tip, a Boston Irishman, Roman Catholic, liberal Democrat, career politician whose main hobby was politics.

But what they shared was love of country, an understanding of the need to work together with those of different opinions, and most importantly, compassion and respect for all people, including those with whom they disagreed.

That era of civility seems quaint in 2019, with the 'kill-or-be-killed' approach to public discourse. And I am showing my age when I suggest that the Reagan-O'Neill era wasn't that long ago.

Some readers stopped reading 12 paragraphs ago, incensed to read abortion rights and gun rights as equivalent matters of left and right. Feel free to substitute immigration, Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, banning Muslims from entering the country, climate change or any other of a list of hot-button issues if you like.

The point is, both sides of most issues have honest points. You may not believe or agree with them, but you can have compassion and respect for the other person. You may not be swayed by the argument. You may even find the argument itself foolish. You may become frustrated or angry. You may be offended by their views.

I am not talking about neo-Nazis or white supremacists or jihadists or any other violent extremists. They have no interest in anything but hate, division and violence. That should offend all people. The fact that it doesn't is a symptom of the ills that plague our society, where hateful and divisive words and actions are just 'opinions' or 'constitutionally protected free speech.' Maybe so, but reasonable people have to see this for what it is - a disease that needs to be cured.

For everyone else, whether left, right and center, we disagree on certain things - priorities and strategies, mainly. Is this more important/urgent/dangerous than that? Do we solve this problem with a government program or market incentives or both or neither? Will helping this group over here place an undue burden on that group over there? Which groups interests matter most?

People of goodwill and pure heart can disagree on these types of things. They can be adamant and passionate and even strident in presenting and defending their positions.

What we must do, in these heated and escalating debates, is to have the compassion to see the other side as human. To have compassion for them, their problems, their pain and their priorities.

To avoid reaching for the demonization button, where the other side ceases to be decent people and turn into the kind of mauraders who burn and pillage without care or conscience.

Once dehumanized, it's easy to inflict hate and derision on these mindless demons, bent on destruction of all that is decent and good.

Not only have we have become good at hitting that button, but we have brought hate and derision into the light, normalizing and even suggesting its necessity, in defense of our opinions.

This probably sounds like naive idealism to some, but if we truly value our way of life, we have to get back to the civility and compassion that made democracy work. There are certainly evil people who seek to exploit and even destroy us, who hate our way of life. We are doing our work for them when we divide ourselves into angry, exclusive tribes whose only interest is fighting other tribes.

We are better than this. We have to start showing it.

God bless you.


1 Comment

Jul 10, 2019

beautiful jim..

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