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Seeking compassion in our public discourse

Our ability to engage with each other across class, race, gender, political and philosophical divides seems to be deteriorating.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. greatly influenced by Gandhi, preached and led nonviolent civil rights marches through the South. But he also lifted up the poor, the despised, and the beaten down.
REUTERS/Allison Shelley

Lately, I’ve been searching for compassion in our public discourse. Actually, I’ve been longing for more discourse, period. The kind where people listen carefully to each other and honor the rights of each to hold differing points of view, even when they strongly disagree on values or courses of action. Instead, our ability to engage with each other across class, race, gender, political and philosophical divides seems to be deteriorating.

I find it elating when conversing with someone who feels free to express her or his points of view, including how passionately or lukewarmly they hold them. I recall a friend telling me that in the heat of the Clinton/Trump electoral contest, she sat beside a Trump-supporting businessman whose rationales ran totally counter to her own. But they managed to talk about the Clinton/Trump election for hours on a flight to Europe without rancor, each intrigued by the other’s reasoning.

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Historical examples

Many of our great spiritual leaders and philosophers have lived compassionate lives. Christ often gathered and lifted up poor people, prostitutes, and foreigners, saving his dissent for the wealthy or those abusing political or religious power. Mahatma Gandhi organized against tyranny, both in South Africa and India, embracing nonviolence and welcoming all comers. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. greatly influenced by Gandhi, preached and led nonviolent civil rights marches through the South. But he also lifted up the poor, the despised, and the beaten down. In our current era, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, leads both spiritually and politically.

photo of article author
Ann Markusen
When I was a child, our grade school Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught us much about compassion. Not just through instruction, but by their own example and their gentle responses to the inevitable scraps kids get into. They spoke strongly about their beliefs, but were tolerant of our questions, skepticism and disagreements. They encouraged us to inquire and think for ourselves. 

It’s hard to be compassionate toward others, including animals and even machines, that misbehave. But sometimes the most outrageous behavior is a yelp for help. And it’s sometimes hard to be compassionate toward yourself. British scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, in her book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” writes an entire chapter on “Compassion for Yourself.Her chapters include “How Should We Speak to One Another?” and “Love Your Enemies.” I have to admit having a hard time with the latter.

‘Being Peace’

Books have helped me ponder compassion and work on it as practice. A staple is “Being Peace,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who opposed the Vietnam war. The book includes a long prose poem on compassion, “Please Call Me By My True Names.”

Our media isn’t much help. Television and movies lean heavily toward portraying violence, narcissism and dysfunctional relationships. A British TV series, available on Netflix, that models compassion beautifully, “Call the Midwife,” probes how a group of young midwives, housed in a convent and working in the tough East End of London in the 1950s, work around poverty, dysfunctional relationships and ignorance to build strong relationships with each other and solve daunting problems with their clients.

It’s hard to tolerate hateful speech, derogatory put-downs of others, and dismissive gestures toward values and beliefs I hold dearly. But then I think of a very charitable view my good friend Julia shared with me many years ago: “Most people are doing the best they can.” Now that is compassion.

Ann Markusen is a retired University of Minnesota political economist and resident of Red Clover Township, Carlton County.

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