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Flooding in the Upper Mississippi Valley – Stillwater – Minnesota – USA – April 18, 2023
Photo Credit: Weather Underground

This is the first in my series of reflections on the “c-o-s-m-o-s remedy” proposed in opposition to the “ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e” by Jem Bendell in Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (UK/USA 2021).

In contrast to the habit of Entitlement in e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, which involves thinking ‘I expect more of what I like and to be helped to feel fine,’ Bendell proposes that Compassion, in this context, involves sensing that ‘I feel an active responsibility for any of my contribution to your suffering, without expecting to feel right, better or worse’ (p.146).

What is compassion?

In her book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (USA 2021), American research professor Brené Brown defines compassion as “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering” (p. 118). Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) describes it simply in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet (USA 2021, p. 109): “Compassion is a powerful energy that allows us to do anything we can to help reduce the suffering around us.”

Karen Armstrong, an English historian of religions, offers us the historical conception of compassion learned through her studies of the spiritualities of humanity’s early ancestors. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (USA 2010), she stresses that compassion is not pity, as translated by some scholars. Rather, the word is derived from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning “to suffer, undergo, or experience.” She makes clear (p. 9):

So “compassion” means “to endure (something) with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view. That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.

Armstrong notes that all religions, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion. Although our Western Civilization has advanced scientifically and technologically, knowledge of the nature of our being has never surpassed the insights of the great sages of the “Axial Age” (900 to 200 BCE). This was the period of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Ezra, Socrates, and Aeschylus. Imagine that! With our focus on material progress and capital accumulation, humanity has neglected our emotional, spiritual, and social needs, which are also essential for our well-being and survival.

Compassion was also a key element in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The original vision of humanity’s great sages was then translated into a language that spoke directly to the troubled circumstances of the period. As Armstrong notes (p. 81): “Suffering is a law of life, and it is essential…to acknowledge our own pain or we shall find it impossible to have compassion for the distress of others.” No one is immune to pain or suffering. Such is the nature of being human.

In a recent blog post on “Compassion,” American energy healer/mentor/coach Karen Lang shares her inner journey to feeling deep compassion for the driver who, in 2002, had taken the life of her nine-year-old son. Unable to forgive her and intent on seeking justice, Lang learns that the woman was also suffering after taking a child’s life. “[The woman] could no longer work or leave her room, and her family did not know what to do. // Suddenly and surprisingly, this story created room in me and I felt deep compassion towards her.”

As a young Catholic nun in Guyana, I learned and practiced the principles of a compassionate life. Fourteen years after leaving the convent, as a wife and mother living in Brazil, I suffered a blow that knocked me to the ground, leaving me broken. My then-husband returned to Guyana, abandoning me and our two sons, then six and eight years old, in a foreign land. In the following days and months, I walked along the edge of an abyss. Darkness enshrouded me. Uncertainty rose at the dawn of each new day. Fear of stepping across the abyss paralyzed me. To hide my fear from my sons, I cried while taking a shower. Loss of control of my days brought humility. 

As I stumbled in the darkness to put myself together again, while finding ways to provide for my sons, I knew that I was not alone. We had compassionate individuals in our lives who cared: neighbors, colleagues at work, as well as the teachers and headmistress at my sons’ school. Even strangers. An empathic and compassionate heart—forged anew in the self-consuming fire of my brokenness—emerged from the darkness into the light. A sharper vision of our shared humanity, with its joys and pain, came into focus. We are One. We live on the same rock, we call Planet Earth, trapped in a gravitational elliptical movement through space in a vast Universe.

Compassion towards others is a continual act of being that I reaffirm on awakening to each new day. We are not perfect beings. We also have a dark side. Far too often during these chaotic times, my dark side cries out to be heard and avenged. I become angry at those in power and their supporters who have chosen to walk on the dark path of intolerance, exclusion, and violence towards others who do not share their views, beliefs, and vision of our shared world. In times like these, I breathe in and release the anger seething within.

Yet, despite the darkness within us, we are capable of heroic acts of compassion. In her blog post “Good News Tuesday for May 2, 2023,” American author and artist JoAnne Macco shares the story of nurse Katrina Mullen, a single mother of five, who adopted a fourteen-year-old mother of triplets to keep the young family together. Nurse Mullen gives me hope that we the people have the power within us to overcome the growing chaos of our global climate and ecological crisis.

NICU nurse shares why she opened her home to teen with triplets
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