Compassion and Community

I have been writing in this blog about community from a variety of perspectives. It is a complex, broad, and interesting topic. While community can be examined as a sociological phenomenon or as simply a practical survival technique, it is so much more than that. Any explorations into the foundations and motivations for community demonstrate both its complexity and its elegance. Such deep reflection on community unavoidably exposes its theological dimensions and moves the discussion beyond socio­economic principles like the generally practiced belief that individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will somehow create a fair and just society for everyone.

That approach reminds me of the scientific understanding of matter that held sway during the Enlightenment: small but discrete billiard balls that interact with each other according to the laws of motion and that combine with one another according to strict chemical laws. From Einstein on, modern science, including nuclear physics, has shown us that such a simplistic understanding is inadequate. There are no discrete “atomic” particles, and furthermore, the smaller an observed particle is, the more indistinguishable it is from energy. Additionally, particles seem to “relate” to one another, almost as if they “mattered” to one another. Quite a few “field theories” have emerged from these scientific observations. Field theories point to the depth of connection and influence we have with one another, no matter how unseen or unconscious.

I contend that a similar broadening of our thinking will be necessary for us to understand the nature of community, and to develop in our ability to embody healthier communities. For the sake of this essay, I will assume that the quality of “mattering” is akin to divine presence. (Just to be clear, I am not assuming the divine to mean some other worldly “person” who lives in “heaven” and who intervenes in life in response to human petition.) I am looking from the other way around. This concept of interaction and mutual influence that goes far beyond the mindless smashing of billiard balls is both mysterious and awe-inspiring. How mutual “mattering” plays out can also be paradoxical, like the concept of “enlightened self-interest” where the activity of doing good for “the collective” is ultimately good for the individual.

One way to think about what I have referred to as “mattering” is by clarifying the idea of compassion. Jesus says: “Be compassionate as your God is compassionate.” While this may be a stretch, I read this to mean that compassion is “divine.”

My question I am working on is two-fold: What does compassion mean? And can it be fostered in individuals and communities?

In many sacred texts, compassion goes together with love and mercy. One could say that “Agape (one of the Greek words for love is “an attitude of unconditional good will towards others,” Compassion is “the inner experience of that attitude,” and Mercy is “the outward expression of love/compassion”. As I think about it, Compassion might be the “animating force” that manifests the idea of love into acts of mercy. Compassion is the means by which agape lives in us and from which it is expressed. So, I wonder how can we increase our capacity to experience and embody divine compassion?

If we simply employ “rational self-interest,” we jump from the idea of a caring community directly to the “good” acts that we believe create that community’s environment. While this equation may make logical sense, I think it is hard to sustain in practice. The development of compassion may provide the inner motivation, the energy if you will, so that we will be able to create and nurture ever healthier communities.

It seems to me, also, that compassion is a necessary foundation for the development of a deeply ethical culture, one that is not motivated by survival-based fears. Fear has held sway too long in human history, including business, politics, and religion. I hope that the time for us to develop our deeper capacity for compassion, because Love/Compassion/Mercy is the only antidote for fear.

I had planned to write more about the process for nurturing compassion, but I’ve written enough for this post, so the process discussion will have to wait.

So, this is how I see things today. What do you see?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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