Theologian Frederick Beuchner writes this of compassion, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.”
These past few weeks, the news has troubled me on a deeper level. The UN’s new climate projections, the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearing, the current president’s apparent tax fraud, the gruesome death of a journalist in Saudi Arabia, reports of assaults on asylum seekers at the border, children still separated from their families, the worsening famine in Yemen are only some of the stories I have read about within the last few weeks, stories I now carry within me, as I sit helplessly in rapt and fearful watch. My heart feels battered, and as we each know from every obvious heartbreak we’ve endured, the heart under stress has two options: remain soft and feel the pain, or harden like concrete. This choice, I must say, the fact that there is a choice, is an immense privilege. For those of us who walk around with privilege welded to our faces, we must embrace discomfort
Democracy dies in darkness, they say. Although, after hearing the new reports of interference in our elections and the rampant security leaks from department stores to social media platforms, I am increasingly wondering if democracy might in fact die right under our noses, in the light of day and the blue light of computer screens. We need to stay informed. Compassion matched with information sparks the sacred within us that aspires for a better world. Our beating hearts are meant to be stirred; our bodies mobilized.
The hardening of hearts is understandable. More than our ancestors ever before us, we are aware of the immensity of suffering and complexity of problems we cannot solve alone in communities far away and wildly different from ours. We are armed with unprecedented levels of information about our planet, the galaxy we live in, technology, and globalization. We know about dangerous carbon levels, human rights violations, animal cruelty, and cyberattacks. It is how we process the deluge of information that affects whether or not we become more compassionate.
Hardened hearts can handle facts, but not pain. Compassion takes a hammer to hardened hearts, breaking the concrete armor into dust, to reveal the natural state of the heart. Soft hearts Soft hearts are permeable, palpating with human hope and despair. Soft hearts allow the truth beyond fact, beyond report, to rest within them. Soft hearts are compassionate hearts. They do not shrink from data; they do not shrink from sacred moments. Soft hearts hope, while they grieve.
I live above a very busy avenue in Manhattan. Some mornings, I sit with my cat and cup of coffee on the window seat in my bedroom. I watch people, from all walks of life imaginable, on their commutes, with their partners, with their children. And in the breathless space of the early hours of the day, I catch people in their softness. For a time, sitting at our window, I remember the unreported tenderness that does not make the Times Digest but is stitched within the mundane. Each of us must find and employ strategies for maintaining the softness of our hearts. If you ask this almost-theologian, art, contemplation, and community never fail to soften rigidity or offer clarity.
The news, media, helps us as it illumines the suffering of other human beings of which some of us would be ignorant, which forces us out of easily reconciled comfort into deeper thought about who we are as human beings, the meaning of our existence, and our collective values. The hardened heart can neither grow nor participate in joy, for it is too afraid of pain, too resigned, too tired. The soft heart continues to beat, continues to open more, grows stronger in hope that the world will become a safer, more beautiful place for everyone. Avoidance, resignation, euphemism, and cynicism, however, have never been active forces for good.
The media circus is dangerous if not checked by other sources of information on the state of humanity. Otherwise, we may begin to feel more like machines than human beings and fear may begin to seem more plausible or sustainable than love.
We need to remain informed in order to build a world that respects the dignity of every person and the earth. We have to research candidates and issues to make informed voting decisions. We have to know how climate change is progressing in order to maintain our own ongoing ecological conversions. We have whole bodies of work to read to re-educate ourselves in American history in order to understand the ugliness of structural racism. Such work requires discomfort, confusion, pain, and heartbreak.
Compassion is not a flimsy virtue to be printed on a bumper sticker or stitched on a pillow. Compassion is the rigorous spiritual practice of maintaining an open, soft heart in the face of human suffering. To remain aware of and to care about human suffering is to be concerned with both mercy and justice, both kindness and fairness. Compassion is the harder path of remaining crumbled and courageous at once, the rocky path toward joy and peace for all.
Stay soft, my dear, in the face of what you find today. Softness is the soil of wisdom.