There are a lot of things to care about in this world, and not least of these is each other.
What do you care about?
Plastic in the oceans
This week I am joining in with the #1000Speak for Compassion project which calls on “Bloggers from all over the world (to come) together to talk about compassion, in one epic event on February 20, 2015.”
Charli Mills of the Carrot Ranch is also promoting the project through her flash fiction prompt which challenges writers to: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that demonstrates compassion. In her post Charli refers to two words which have been raised and discussed by our blogging community recently.
These two words are:
Weltschmerz which was discussed on Anne Goodwin’s blog in a post entitled 20th-century lives: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Meliorism which was discussed in my post entitled How much of a meliorist are you?
Thanks Charli for explaining that Weltschmerz refers to “world pain” or the grief we feel at how the world keeps falling short of our expectations and meliorism to a belief that the world can be improved by the actions of humans.
Some of the items listed above are definitely cause for both weltschmerz and meliorism, but most send us a call to action. What action we take depends very much upon our beliefs and our circumstances. In an article in The Guardian earlier this year, Oliver Burkeman states that “World pain is bad – but numbness to world pain would be worse.”
However compassion is more than weltschmertz (seeing the pain) and more than meliorism (believing that something can be done about it).
In this TED talk, Joan Halifax explains that
“compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is the ability to really stand strong and to recognize that I’m not separate from this suffering … (and that) we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But … we cannot be attached to the outcome.”
In the talk Halifax explains that compassion is good for us, it enlivens us and makes us resilient, it also develops our immunity.
“if compassion is so good for us, I have a question. Why don’t we train our children in compassion?”
In my next post, to coincide with #1000Speak for Compassion on Friday 20th I will be looking at some ways that have been suggested to answer that question. If you wish to add your voice to the call follow this link for suggestions of how you can be involved.
For now I will leave you with my response to Charli’s challenge. I have not tried to address compassion on a global scale but have thought smaller.
In her talk Halifax said that “compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions.”
I wondered how feelings of compassion might be activated in the life of a young woman from an impoverished and abusive background.
In the ‘smart’ outfit carefully selected by the charity shop attendant, Marnie was surprised how well the confident exterior masked the whirlpool of fear, anxiety and insecurity.
Without looking up, the receptionist handed Marnie a number and waved her to the waiting area.
“9”. Her heart sank. “That many?”
Avoiding contact and ‘contamination’, she squeezed into the only available space: between a boy slouching awkwardly and a girl picking her fingernails.
The girl started crying. Marnie stiffened, but glanced sideways. The girl cried into her sleeve.
Marnie breathed, proffered her unopened purse packet of ‘just-in-case’ tissues, and smiled, “Here.”
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.
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Hi Norah. Loved the post and the comments. Bec pretty much said what I was going to. Like her I wondered at Marnie. If she had ‘smart’ clothes it had to be a job; but collecting a number it felt like a doctor… Loved the ending though. And your points are so well made as are Charli’s and Bec’s. I agree with her about the ease with which we group people and fail as a result but I hadn’t thought about the alternative of empathy being individual so we focus on one case, because we can empathise and not address the dozens like it. My 20th Feb post was on this subject of treating people as individuals but Bec has added a spin for me I think…
Thanks for adding your thoughts, Geoff. It is the comments that make the post worthwhile by adding so much extra to the humble start idea.
I was thinking of Marnie going to a job interview, but more at a government centre or large recruiting firm where everyone is called in at the same time, fills in a form and has a brief interview in turn. Obviously I try to tell too much in my flash and fail to tell the full story. When I read other’s responses their 99 words seem many more than mine! I’m practising! Thanks for your encouragement.
I look forward to reading your 20th Feb post about empathy and compassion, treating people as individuals. I wonder how different it may be in response to Bec’s comment. There is so much worthwhile to say about the subject it is difficult to choose just what. I’m sure ethics and compassion would be a big part of the role for many lawyers, though maybe not for others. I get the strong impression you’re a compassionate one! 🙂
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Thank Norah. I hope so but it needs conscious thought… It doesn’t always feel like it comes naturally. And humble or not your posts have a habit of creating debate. Like a mini human Oxford Union!
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I’m very fortunate to belong to a wonderful community of supportive writers who read, comment and discuss. It’s what makes the process worthwhile and pleasurable.
I agree with the need for conscious thought. There are probably lots you do automatically without conscious thought though, sending out positive ripples by just being you. 🙂
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Thanks for flagging up all these ways in which we might express compassion. Your posts are always so well researched.
I loved to see Marnie getting it together and, despite her own anxiety in the waiting room, she managed to show compassion for someone else. Just looking at the other comments, I DID think it was an interview she was going to, but then when the other people in the waiting room were a girl and boy I thought they might be too young to be working ( although, of course they might be going for a job at sixteen) so then I wasn’t so sure.
I think it’s great how you showed us aspect of this character and we’re all rooting for her, as if she were real. Now I’m off to shoulder my way into the other strands of the discussion.
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Thanks for your encouraging comment, Anne.
You interpreted my intention for Marnie. She was at a job interview. I didn’t know how to identify the children as teenagers. I could have used ‘youth’ for him, but what for the girl? Also I didn’t think Marnie would think the word ‘youth’. I couldn’t think of any suitable labels. I’d love to have my vocabulary extended.
I’m pleased you all see something to root for in Marnie. Seeing that something is what makes a teacher’s job so worthwhile and rewarding.
You’ve brought out so many causes that arouse compassion! I enjoyed Frank’s fishing for plastic and as he questioned himself on the 400,000 years it would take for him to make a difference, I felt compassion for his plight. Joan Halifax gave a strong speech for compassion. Interesting that she says it has enemies — pity, being one.
I’m so glad to see a return to Marnie and not surprised that she could show compassion. After all, she had a teacher demonstrate it many times to her. Great flash and stirring post!
Oh, but I do need to redirect credit back to Anne for combining your two words. She came up with how melorism and Weltschmerz interact.
Thanks for your in-depth contribution! And Feb. 20 is Friday! Like Frank, I often have trouble getting numbers to match. 🙂
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Thanks for your lovely response, Charli. I can always rely on you to add a great deal more to the value of my posts. 🙂
You spent a bit of time looking around at the links and videos I included. You’re amazing. Frank’s fishing for plastic is very sad. I hope the humour is effective in getting people to eliminate or reduce their use of plastic. It seems we are totally surrounded by it, dare I say drowning in it. Maybe for you, out of the city, in a more rural area, there is less reliance on plastic?
Joan Halifax’s comment about pity is interesting. I guess compassion indicates a sharing of the suffering, an empathy for it, whereas pity tends to remain aloof and separate?
I’m pleased you enjoyed Marnie’s attempt (my attempt) at compassion. I did struggle with this one.
And as for the numbers, you have no idea how many times I counted the dates on my hand starting with Monday the 16th on my thumb, just to be sure! 🙂
I agree about the problem of plastic and hope you don’t mind my linking to one my stories on the subject that you might well have seen before
I also agree that pity can sometimes be condescending, that we don’t ever imagine ourselves being in that person’s shoes. But I don’t think that automatically makes it a bad thing, for example it might move us to donate to good causes.
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Thanks for linking to your “Plastic” story. I have read it before and was pleased to read it again. It tells a tragic story in a very powerful way. I hope Frank (in the video I shared) gets lots of help to fish that plastic out of the ocean, and people learn, very quickly, to reduce their dependence on it. Its effects are quite frightening, as you have shown in your story. I think that previously you also shared a story about some women who have a blog about sustainable fishing, plastic and the oceans. I should check it out again. 🙂
There are always ‘good’ causes to donate to. Choosing the most worthy from limited funds is always a challenge; and once one receives the other hands come out. I think a lot more needs to be done about equitable sharing. Big banks making huge amounts of profit is obscene, and millionaires who surround themselves with more luxuries than they could ever use … well, I won’t go there. I might leave that for Bec. She does a better job with that one than i! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Hi Nor, what a great topic for thought, and a great post from you in response. Though not totally connected, the thinking I do about conflict in environmental management and the impact of (and on!) social identity comes to mind. When we see people as belonging to a group to which we don’t belong, we see them as an ‘other’, where we tend to homogenise the members of the group, and play up the differences between members of that group and members of a group to which we feel we belong. Certainly in this way we are dehumanising others, making it harder to show compassion.
You FF is very intriguing. I was hoping, when I saw the topic of compassion, that we’d be meeting Marine again. I wonder where she is? A job interview? Meeting with a government service? A court hearing? Abortion or other traumatic, stigmatised life event? Why would the other person be waiting? I can see from the FF that Marnie feels uncomfortable around others, but works hard to hide it while maintaining her ‘safety barriers’. So it sounds like – from this and from our other encounters with Marine in your FF – that reaching out and helping the other person in the room was a big step for her. I wonder if it was the care from a teacher in her early years that helped her to be a compassionate adult??!
Something else that comes to mind, just as another thought which is tangentially connected to some of the concepts you discussed here is I listened to an interesting discussion on the radio once about the problem with empathy – I think it was something like that. The speaker was arguing that when we show empathy, it tends to be focused on a single person, for example the injured child. We (I mean here society) offer a major show of support often through majorly generous personal donations or efforts, and help that one person out of their trouble. In so doing – I believe went the argument – we demonstrate the ‘exit’ from dire straits and feel better about the problem. But this empathetic, individual-focused approach doesn’t capture the systemic problems. It makes me think of your enthusiasm for helping disadvantaged children through early-years education: this surely is one of those ways we can address systemic problems!
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Thanks for your lovely response, Bec.
I like the way you have described the ‘us and them’ mentality and the difficulty such an attitude places on the ability to feel compassion for one of ‘them’. Sounds like we need to look for the connections rather than the points of difference.
I’m intrigued by your response to Marnie’s story too. You have asked a lot of questions and raised some points that I had not as yet thought of. I was trying to think of a situation in which Marnie could be helpful to/feel compassion for another. I initially thought of her helping someone read, but I couldn’t fit the story into the 99 words. The situation I finally chose for her was attending her first job interview, where another applicant was not able to hold it together when feeling threatened by Marnie’s apparent confidence.
I’m also interested in what you say about empathy for individuals and the cure for systemic woes. I will be including a video by Daniel Goleman in my next post. I think you will like/agree with some of what he has to say about tracking items we purchase back to their source. I guess being mindful when we shop, as you are, is one way of expressing compassion for those far away in working conditions that we would not tolerate. 🙂
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I’m interested in how the ‘us and them’ mentality comes into environmental management, seems kind of obvious but hadn’t thought of it before, so thanks Bec for pointing it out. I think it’s a difficult area to change because, particularly when we feel under threat ourselves, that tendency to split the world into those we can trust and those we can’t is a fundamental psychological defence.
I think I also came across the research that Bec mentions – I actually thought it was on this site, but it might have been in one of Oliver Burkman’s columns that you mention – where people were willing to donate more money if it were to save one child/ donkey or whatever then if it were to save several. Seemingly it’s easier to care about individuals than populations, which is probably why often journalists like to get quotes from bystanders when reporting on an event.
Bec knows a lot about environmental management – it’s the focus of her PhD thesis. I learn a lot from her.
I like the way you describe the ‘us and them’ as a psychological defence. There may be times when that defence is necessary to maintain mental stability by being able to separate oneself from atrocities that occur, rather than seeing oneself as connected and, in some way, responsible for all that happens however far removed.
Perhaps being able to help just one person seems achievable, where solving wider or more systemic problems seems overwhelming. Sometimes focusing on the trees gives a clearer picture than focusing on the wood.
Sometimes, but sometimes not. These issues are all so confusing and complex. There is nothing easy about many of the choices we make.
Thanks for sharing your voice and knowledge. 🙂