In the wake of tragedy, a compassionate (religious?) response

It seems as if the tragedies are coming so fast we only need bullet points now: Newtown; The Boston Marathon; Oklahoma. There are hundreds of incidents I could write between each one, like a brief outline of unending pain.

I don’t think we have a choice about whether violence or upheaval is part of our world. We only get to choose our response when they come.

Some Americans remain indifferent, feigning compassion when others are looking, but giving none of their time, money, or effort. A few (I hope not many), find opportunities to advance their own interests amid destruction. But many, many more of us dig deep and hold out some bit of ourselves, however small, to the wounded. Labor, blankets, $10, shelter. Some examples are medal-worthy, like those who ran towards explosions or drove into tornadoes.

This is a truly empathetic response. It is often also a religious response, but not always. I used to care whether religion made people more or less moral, but I’m not so concerned with that anymore. I just rejoice in any evidence that people in this world still care about each other.

Compassion isn’t passive. It’s a proactive effort to combat violence, destruction, pain, and suffering. A compassionate gesture is our offering, religious or not, to the idea that our own personal desires are not all that matter. Together, these gestures are our invisible communal safety net, evidence of the instinct that gives humans the courage to dare as they do.

I think it is my interest in active compassion that explains why I love religion and spirituality, and why my experiments in belief have meant so much to me. But religion does not have a monopoly on morality and empathetic action. Some of the most concerned, engaged people I know were raised in secular homes similar to mine.

The problem is, these individuals aren’t the norm, not of any demographic. Modern American culture seems bent on individualism. Personal fulfillment is priceless; we pursue it at the expense of our closest loved ones, sometimes even our children. And somehow this is not only acceptable, but even admirable.

I believe compassion has a place in this world, and that every day, I have a choice: to live for myself, or to live for others—which really, I’ve discovered, is to live for both.  Often I choose poorly, but hopefully the next day I do a little better. This is what it means, to me, to live a life of faith, even if the name of that faith may never be asterisk-free.

I consider myself, and countless others from my generation, living examples of morally concerned individuals raised in secular or semi-secular environments. Whether we exist is no longer a question; now, it might be time to start thinking about how we came to be.  Our responses to tragedy don’t have to be rooted in religion to be compassionate, but they need to be rooted in something.  If not spiritual stories, histories, and beliefs, then what?

I was lucky in what I was given as a child. Between my mother’s character and a love of reading there was a lot to work with. Still, when even my mother’s ethic failed to hold my family together, I felt my worldview collapse in ways not everyone’s would.

I love Thoreau and the idea of moral autonomy. But in times of crisis even someone with the strongest internal compass needs a solid foundation to fall back on.

If we want to build a society that will come together in the wake of terrible tornadoes in the Midwest, we need to tell our children stories. If not of gods or prophets, than of Gandhi. And the Dalai Lama. And Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela. To summarize a very long list: tell them about every figure, every character, every ancestor who has taken the way of faith and truth when it is hard. Tell them of the long, historical journey that culminated in them, these wide-eyed children wondering what they should think of the world.

And, hopefully, in the face of total destruction, they will choose love.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

8 thoughts on “In the wake of tragedy, a compassionate (religious?) response

  1. Beautiful truth. Thank you, Jessie! I feel the same about our internal compass and our need for a more solid compassion. You may like reading the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion.

  2. Thanks for this. The last paragraph reminded me of my first time to go to Iran for a dialogue. As we met people, and even as a part of what we encountered in the public spaces, I was struck by what I perceived as an emphasis on telling what I called “hero tales.” These were not focused on military like victories, as so many of our public shared narratives can be, but rather these were stories about a person’s compassionate involvement in the community; stories meant to model & inspire virtuous living.

    1. That must have been a very interesting experience! Your comment is just what I was trying to get at. These stories sound like a beautiful way of passing on shared values. There are so many “hero tales” of compassionate living out there–we just have to keep telling them!

  3. “I used to care whether religion made people more or less moral.”

    That’s quite an unexploded ordinance just laying there in the minefield of religion. What is meant by “used to care?” Does it mean you used to study/debate religion’s influence on morality? Or perhaps did you expect religious people to behave more moral than nonbelievers?

    I’ve known all flavors of Christians, from churching-just-in-case-it’s-true to fundamentalist evangelicals. My impression is that spectacularly loving, kind, thoughtful and generous Christians would still be all those things even they were not Christian or religious at all. And it seems that unloving, uncaring, unempathetic, untrustworthy, arrogant, pompous, selfish, mean and cruel Christians are all those things with or without religion, an example being the hard-core, hard-right politicians who claim to be Christian, who try to pass Christian-related laws and who unashamedly expose their hatred and bigotry for all who are not of their same gender, race or religion.

    Can religion convert the cruel to be kind or the selfish to be generous? Of course it’s possible, but it may be the exception rather than the rule. What do you think?

    1. I completely agree with you on all counts. That did need more explanation! Coming from a secular community, the only debate anyone wants to have seems to be “Does religion result in more harm or more good for the world?” I spent a long time trying to argue almost exactly what you wrote in your post–that it depends on the believer–but now I’ve gotten tired of the question. Religion is here, and religious people are doing beautiful and ugly things in the name of faith, and no one on either side will be able to tally up them all and declare a winner. I happen to believe that religion does a lot of good that doesn’t get shared, and that deserves to be shared, so I choose to focus on that.

  4. “If we want to build a society that will come together in the wake of terrible tornadoes in the Midwest, we need to tell our children stories. If not of gods or prophets, than of Gandhi. And the Dalai Lama. And Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela. To summarize a very long list: tell them about every figure, every character, every ancestor who has taken the way of faith and truth when it is hard. Tell them of the long, historical journey that culminated in them, these wide-eyed children wondering what they should think of the world.”

    Thanks, Jessie. I really appreciated this post – especially the final paragraph. The question is not whether we will tell stories, but what kind of stories we will tell. Will our stories empower or enervate, create or destroy? Or, in the case of trauma, will our stories help us piece the world back together in some way.

    I gave a children’s sermon in the wake of the bombings in a Boston congregation, so I’ve experienced a little bit of the difficulty in trying to talk about trauma with children. It may be hard work, but it also crucial. Our future depends on it.

    1. That must have been a challenging sermon to write. You’re right–it’s so important, so thank you for undertaking it. I’m sure it was very meaningful for the kids who heard it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.