Compassion Is The Answer, But What Is The Question?

No one event triggered this devolution, but it undeniably was pushed along many times by the moral relativism of the last 50 years, when most of society’s widely accepted norms were undermined by the quicksand of nonjudgmentalism; when the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, were abolished in favor of differences that were to be respected if not celebrated, and codified when necessary to surmount widespread public opposition.

Paradoxically, people and institutions whose beliefs do not permit them to tolerate the most abhorrent differences were judged to be evil. Through rigid enforcement of increasingly fascist speech and thought codes, relativists turned America into a nation of lip-biters who with their silence condoned as normal behaviors and beliefs that are irrefutably unnatural and inherently immoral.


No, the [recent California Supreme Court] ruling merely answered homosexuals’ purely emotional plea for cultural acceptance by giving civil unions their proper label – “marriage” – the will of Californians, as democratically expressed twice, and the dark societal consequences be damned.

–Editorial in the May 17, 2008 Waterbury Republican.


Anyone who regularly reads my blogs probably thought to log in and find the latest news from Myanmar, or of the earthquake in China.

But today I want to write about something that underpins almost every headline here and abroad: human suffering. The answer on how to understand human suffering has been written about and expounded upon by far more eloquent and profound people than me. Everyone from Martin Luther King, to Gandhi, to the Dalai Lama agrees that compassion is the ultimate answer.

But what is the question?

Is the question what type of vitriol lurks in the heart of the writer of the above referenced editorial from the local Waterbury, Connecticut newspaper? Or should we cast our net wider, and examine the individual’s comments through the lens of history, looking at the oft-employed go-to knee jerk of scapegoating a minority group in a time of economic downturn?

Maybe we should throw the net wider still, and ask why some societies insist on passing laws that attempt to limit which consenting adults should be allowed to marry, or which women should be allowed to conceive, or how many times, or with whom. Maybe we should ask aloud why some societies demand that an intensely private and personally spiritual matter such as abortion should be taken away from the individual woman affected out of deference to a microscopic potential for life, when these same folks demand that their politicians “talk tough”, execute prisoners and torture detainees.

And, in our free and democratic society where we are allowed the luxury to speak our minds without fear that we may be imprisoned, or our families harrassed, maybe we should ask why an unfettered press would obsess on every single detail of a candidate’s hair or dress, or loop quotes from his pastor taken out of context while disease and starvation haunt the survivors of a deadly cyclone. Is our capacity to view human suffering limited? Do we simply “max out”, unable to handle the duality of watching dead bodies floating in rice fields while we calmly sit in front of our computers and television screens, cold beer in one hand and bowl of chips in the other?

We click, we watch, we move on, we escape. Sometimes the escape comes through comedies (I must admit, this is my own favorite form of fleeing the world when it becomes too much). Sometimes through other forms of fictional entertainment. Maybe the trainwreck of the World’s Worst American Idol Singer allows the brain to numb, blocking the outside world.

Sometimes the escapes take a nastier turn. Conflating a nation’s government with the people who happen to live in that nation, some folks escape into the heated world of propaganda, where every slight to the National Leader is a sin, and every criticism of national policy is turned into a lost opportunity to laud Our Brave Men And Women In Uniform.

And sometimes the escape turns to hatred of a group of folks you’ve never met, or with whom you’ve only shared a passing acquaintence. Suddenly these men and women, who love their lifetime partners, who have siblings and parents and children to care for, become The Enemy, Bent On The Destruction Of You And Everything You Hold Dear. Sharpen the pitchforks, light your torches because we’re goin’ after the Evil Doers.

Why do we do this to each other? What is it about humanity that defends the injustice in the name of protecting the folks that are on the receiving end of the suffering caused by injustice?

Does the Why even matter?

Maybe it isn’t about the question at all, but simply about the answer:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s more likely than not because you understand the inherent truth in what King is saying. We are activists because we understand that the ediface needs restructuring, and yet…

And yet…

We are imperfect humans, caught up in the every day just as assuredly as any media pundit.

How to not take our eye off the ball, then, really becomes the central question. How is that singularity of mind achieved? That, I believe, may be the hardest question of all.

I know at this point I’m supposed to pull some type of inspirational quote from some revered philosopher about how to achieve that exact goal. A short, satisfying article generally carries a problem-solution format, after all.

But I have no such wisdom to offer.

The most I can ask you (and me) to do is to look inside, every day, and ask, “What can I do today to affect change?” Instead of attempting monumental – and sometimes Sisyphean – tasks, maybe small, daily actions are the way to both focus the mind and achieve the goal.

Please keep all of the people who are suffering, in Burma, in China and across our small, blue planet in your thoughts, prayers and meditations.


Skip to comment form

  1. have errands to run tomorrow AM so posting this diary in advance (and also because this was on my mind).

    Will check in later 🙂

  2. the Dalai Lama writes of three types of suffering.  The third would probably cover your editorialist, as well as the rantings of the dittohead types.

    There is also a third and more profound level of suffering, which is the most subtle.  We experience this suffering constantly, as it is a by-product of cyclic existence.  It is in the nature of cyclic existence that we are continuously under the control of negative emotions and thoughts.  And, as long as we are under their control, our very existence is a form of suffering.  This level of suffering pervades our lives, sending us round and round in vicious circles of negative emotions and nonvirtuous actions.  However, this form of suffering is difficult to recognize….

    Compassion and mindfulness are the answers, as you say.

    • kj on May 19, 2008 at 15:07

    this morning, GrannyHelen, but look forward to reading this evening!  

  3. … of the instances you put forth in this essay, it seems there is a commmon thread, imo.

    That is the “self” being threatened.  Whether it is a feeling of guilt when confronted by human suffering … and the guilt turns into blame which turns into anger and hatred, or seeing what one considers essential to their own safety, happiness, etc. as being threatened by those who are “different,” that somehow one’s own specialness is challenged by another’s need … to me it all boils down to ego.

    Open heart.  Yep.  Not an easy thing to accomplish.

    Shantideva, a Buddhist fella, said:

    Those desiring to escape from suffering hasten right toward suffering. With the very desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own happiness as if it were an enemy.

    We humans tend to get things backward most of the time, lol.

    Excellent essay, grannyhelen.  Good questions.

    • kj on May 20, 2008 at 14:34

    a willingness to have our hearts broken every day, and still get up the next. agree with you GrannyHelen, small, daily gestures taken with awareness is compassion in action.  we make our gestures with our eyes and hearts wide open. it’s like the chaos theory thing with the butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane… compassion feels the wings of the butterfly before the hurricane hits. ?

Comments have been disabled.