OPW: Charter for Compassion

I’ve recently decided that I’m gonna play it a little looser around here, which means I can bring back an old feature: Other People’s Words.

The document doesn’t list an author, but it’s pretty deeply related to everything I’ve been trying to say when I’ve used the Life category in the last year. Built from Karen Armstrong’s wish at TED in 2008, I just learned about this document a few months ago when someone posted on reddit that you’d never believe what video was at the URL balls.com (that site has changed since then, but I swear this was there).

Anyway, I can’t find a word misplaced in this document (though the formatting is creative), nor one I don’t agree with. The Charter for Compassion states:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.


Covert Crusaders for Compassion

There’s a type of television that I really like. Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days was sometimes dull, but mostly great. MTV’s World of Jenks is good, If You Really Knew Me is laudatory (if a little shallow and repetitive), and True Life is consistently watchable. Errol Morris’s First Person did an admirable job. The best interviews of Charlie Rose or 60 Minutes fit into this basic category, as can some assorted greatness on PBS’s Independent Lens and POV.

All of these, and certainly some others I’ve never seen, and maybe a few I forgot, penetrate some distance into what it’s like to be a person. Their formats, which almost never involve more than three people, and usually heavily emphasize conversation, require a certain frankness to be compelling. And this is typically a frankness with a wide array of people, frequently those not well understood in the mainstream. The conversations that make up these programs reach for, and sometimes achieve, a whole new kind of discourse.

The majority of TV, and at my bleakest I’d say the majority of people, depend deeply on appearances. Not merely in a beauty contest sort of way, but in a “I’m this type of person, you’re that type of person” way. That is, even when they aren’t directly making issue of the physical appearance of people, they’re making issue of the surface of them.

There’s lots of interesting programming on television about objects–appraising them, taking walk-throughs of them, seeing how they are made, sold, or discovered–but there’s little interesting nonfiction programming about people. What we get in that department is usually celebrity coverage (which is contractually obligated to be shallow) and cataloging of the sordid things that people do to each other. You have slightly better luck with people content in fictional programing, but even there a large majority of it is superficial.

But all those programs I listed above, they really go for it. They strive to ask the right questions to make people open like books. By forcing people to confront, face to face, people who disagreed with them strongly on a given issue, Spurlock’s show forced its subjects to really look at themselves and thus air that look back to us. By asking flattering questions, Charlie Rose has the ability to get people to speak frankly about their struggles. By never turning off the camera, True Life can show people at their most foolish or vulnerable.

These shows have, essentially, penetrated in an impressive way the human condition of those who appear on them. They don’t always succeed, but when they do they can achieve a magnificence much greater than the rest of television even tries for.  They offer a richer and deeper understanding of others than many of us ever try to get from even the most intimate people in our lives. They foster an understanding of another that is massively valuable if we truly want the world to be a better, more peaceful and compassionate place.

In his book Being Peace, Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:

When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to [see] all beings with the eye of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that relieves the suffering of people.

This is essentially, what makes me love these shows intensely when they succeed. When they allow us to see the deepest parts of a person, and allow us to understand them with the depth we understand ourselves, it becomes impossible for us to see their subject as “other.” The shows give viewers the gift of easy understanding, and thus easy compassion and love, for these people they might never have encountered at all.

Right there, laid out before us, is the strongest force in the world. These shows offer up for us an understanding of others that is deep and lasting. And such an understanding, if fully received, makes it impossible to hate. We cannot love someone we regard as “other,” we cannot hate someone we understand to be like ourselves. And so it is: the key to peace in our time is right there on your “idiot box.”  And that is why I love these programs, these Covert Crusaders for Compassion.

politics, world

How I Forgot Iraq

soldiersmediacenterSunset in Iraq

There’s been a lot of talk recently–especially among America’s chattering left–about how dire it is that Americans have forgotten about Iraq. Today being the five year anniversary of the invasion, what better day is there tackle the issue? I, one who listens quite often to the chattering left, have forgotten about Iraq. I’m wondering how anyone can not have forgotten Iraq.

To be clear, I’ve not forgotten about the country. I’ve not forgotten about what an debacle the after-invasion rebuilding effort was. I’ve not forgotten how incorrect the majority of commentators were about the necessity of going to war there. But I have stopped thinking about it.

The news of another bombing and of more American casualities no longer strikes as a tragedy or even unusual. It sounds like the same old news. And whether 4 or 40 or 400 died today if will surely fail to register with any of the needed depth.

I have come to accept the death of four of five Americans a week–and at least ten times as many Iraqis–as par for the course. This is not to say that I think the president was right or is right; he’s foolish if he really thinks that serving in Iraq is exhilarating more than it is terrifying.

But as galling as that recent statement was, as galling as a death of any single person is, there’s only so much worry or anger I can contain. Josef Stalin’s often credited with the phrase “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” Similarly, during the Great Depression Harry Hopkins noted that “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.”

It’s a sad but true fact that my suffering causes me great pain and heartache. And at times where the suffering of others is made most plain to me, I can sometimes feel the same about their suffering. But the suffering those soldiers and civilians, injured, dead, or mourning, is not something I spend a great deal of time worrying about. Nor do I manage to worry enough about the mental welfare of troop constantly redeployed at heretofore unheard of frequency. The constant and apparently mild scale of tragedy is more than the average citizen can (or wants to) regularly worry about.

I have no doubt that hundreds if not thousands of people suffer anew every week that the simmering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. I have no doubt that many of those suffering are Americans like me. It’s a tragedy that they have to suffer for the war there.

And though Iraqis and Afghans clearly suffered under the tyrannical regimes in their recent past, that doesn’t do much to diminish the suffering they’re now experiencing during the turbulent struggle for their countries. It’s a tragedy that this conflict, however terrible it’s predecessor, hasn’t been resolved by now.

But it’s not the kind of tragedy that has made me–until I sat down to write this–pay attention. It’s that miss-able kind that I don’t see and don’t hear and don’t remember. And so I, like much of the population, forget and ignore the terrible cost to this country and its citizens of this war. I, like much of the population, don’t worry nearly enough about the cost to civilians on the ground of this war. Of any war.

It’s an ugly truth that within days of publishing this with a heavy heart about the suffering I’ve so frequently ignored, I will again have pushed the suffering in Iraq, and engendered by the events in Iraq, out of my mind. I’ve certainly done it before. Though I agree that it’s a tragedy, I simply don’t have the power or will to constantly remember and despair at the ugly cost of war. That’s ugly, but it’s true.

big ideas, linkpost

Bob Thurman on Compassion

Bob Thurman is an American Buddhist. At TED2006, he gave a great introduction to the ideas of interconnectedness and compassion. It’s a really good summary of the concepts; he has fun with them rather than dwelling on their nature and substance.

I found this though of personal value, who gives a great synopsis thusly:

It struck me because I’ve always considered how heartbreaking it is to be compassionate if it means taking on another person’s pain. He explains this paradox of how embracing someone else’s pain actually makes us see ourselves differently. And most remarkably, the way to help those who suffer is by having a good time. You have to listen to him to really make sense of this, but in part the key to compassion is that it is more fun (and by this I think he means rewarding) than focusing on only yourself.

The video is embedded below (removed, it broke the layout). The page for the talk (which has it downloadable as both audio and video) is here.