Facing Defeat and Despair with Compassion

(This article is written by Dennis Oliver…)

Is it not so, that we in the SNS value rational examination instead of sentimentalised assertions?  As a Buddhist naturalist I prize the understanding of mind and emotion symbolised by pointing to our heart when we speak of the mind. Citta (in the early Buddhist suttas) means mind-heart: thought informed by emotions; emotions shaped by well-considered perceptions.  This is my attempt to think through some deeply emotional themes in my life. I hope I’m forgiven for rambling around a subject that I’ve not yet finally framed.

The other day I brought home a fifty pence copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno from my local charity shop.  Thrillers are my bedtime wind down companions when I need relief from more serious living.  But this one contained a most sobering and demanding message.  The plot involves a  geneticist/virologist who attempts to save our species from the consequences of exponential population growth, sensing that all humanity will perish, due to the consequent depletion of resources and degradation of our environment. Before the year 2100 lack of poisoned air and  water, increased surface temperatures, deforestation, soil depletion (etc. etc. etc.) will do us in – all due to our unsustainable fecundity.

In the book a question is raised, ‘If you knew the only way to save our species was to destroy half of the human population, and if that half included your family and friends, would you do it?  The assumption is that without such action humanity will become extinct, with desperate times calling for desperate measures. A collective denial of the crisis is channeling our response into inadequate responses, plus adding to the problem by finding ways to preserve and extend life.  What actions are needed right now?

This prompted some serious thinking, but not about the problem raised by Dan Brown’s book, urgent as it is.  I began considering the deep inspiration I find in those who are able to retain their compassion in the midst of defeat and discouragement.

An archetypal/mythical example is the dying Christ, feeling utterly forsaken,  yet praying for his enemies – a moving narrative even when I don’t embrace its wider assumptions. Another illustration is Maximilian Kolbe, who was hanged in an Auschwitz concentration camp when he volunteered to die in place of a condemned younger man.  Most who were trapped in the Nazi death camps had no realistic hope of survival.  Understandably, they focused their positive energy on self-compassion and self-survival, if only for just another day of miserable existence.  Though evidently doomed, they kept pursuing their own survival.  Yet some, as Primo Levi and others have documented, shared their bread or other survival essentials with others, to their own detriment. They refused to allow their living hell to strip them of all kindness and thus retained a substantial measure of dignity.

Courage and compassion can be expressed in the face of an overwhelming force, a hospital in a besieged city, an unresourced refugee camp or cruel gulag.  Have you some favourite examples?

Compassion and other self-transcending actions are generally done for the few, and perhaps most commonly in one-to-one relationships.  As the cliche says, you can’t love humanity – just individuals!  However, we dare not take our eye off the issues that affect humanity as a whole, or its many groupings. Here in the UK we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the women’s vote – hard won by political action.  Another slaughter of the innocents (the Parkland School shooting) is followed by demands for effective gun control. Is this not also a form of compassionate action?

The imbalance (one-sidedness) of much compassion is widely evident.  We are inclined to sacrifice for ‘our own people’, but ignore or oppose helping others. Thomas Jefferson could be kind to individual slaves, but refuse to destroy the institution. Liberation movements have promoted horrendous suffering. Some charity workers exploit those they are helping. It’s not useful to demonise such individuals, for their examples reflect something within our common humanity.

We humans tend to limit our compassion to those we know and like, or to strangers whom we can approve of, while remaining indifferent or oppressive to others.  Such is the blindness of culture, ideology, politics, and our individual conditioning.  Acting for “the common good” in political and philanthropical acts, whether to benefit the whole or a minority, always contains abstractions and generalities which can easily result in direct harm to some individuals – not to mention the unintended harm and peripheral damage that none of us can escape committing!  Also, of course, any situation, as any career, can be exploited essentially for our own advantage, if we are motivated that way.  We’re all easily tainted by such things.

But, on the other hand, we can see a special quality of gracious love in some who serve others, whether in prisons, politics, law offices, or community organisations.  Such people seek positive results ‘against the odds’, often with low pay and little prospect that their service will be recognised by all but the small circle of their work. Some of the most striking altruists are found in hospices, war zones, and other settings were optimism seems inappropriate. The wonderful fact is that some people can see things in a different perspective. With no hope of extending or even preserving life, they can still provide comfort through a positive connection with those who face inescapable suffering.

In our immediate neighbourhood, we’ve had a series of unexpected tragedies: Alzheimer’s (both early and later onset), cancer and motor neurone disease, and multiple sclerosis. In all these illnesses there was little prospect of anything but decline, with great pain and terrifying symptoms.  But everyone involved, professionals and family members, plus those who were dying, showed amazing courage and a lack of bitterness.  To witness this has been a source of strength and inspiration.

Taking the long view,  we can often turn from the realisation that we all are on a  ‘titanic’ voyage, with a predictable tragic ending.  Some look for the consolation of an afterlife and are empowered by its hope (whether ‘heaven’, or ‘reincarnation/rebirth’). But those with a naturalist spiritual framework, who resist the denial of our common ‘end of story,’ must find their empowerment elsewhere.  Thankfully, this is not impossible.  As we move ever closer to the cliff edge, we still can exercise the wisdom that leads to happiness.  Key to it, of course, is compassion.

Do you know situations which have no prospects of “success” or “betterment,” which can be  opportunities for compassionate action? They might offer rich satisfactions to all concerned, despite the underlying tragedy.  In such situations it’s the best life can be, and perhaps that is quite sufficient and remarkably satisfying.


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