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.