History, Compassion, and the Laboring Souls of Women

History, Compassion, and the Laboring Souls of Women


These words from the book The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois are not difficult to understand:

"...Added to the shock of the routine violation of their bodies was the trauma of having to relinquish their children to unknown slave-holders. [W.E.B.] Du Bois considered this physical, mental, and spiritual abuse of black women--with its inevitable result being the destruction of the traditional African family--the highest crime committed by slave-holders and the one thing for which he said he could not forgive them."

Finding a way to forgive the unforgivable is not an easy thing to do. Yet during this 2017 Women's History Month it behooves humanity to contemplate the many indignities women have endured over the centuries while still maintaining the capacity to serve communities as:

Sacrificial Lambs
Best Friends
Primary Motivators
Empowering Supervisors
Political Advocates
Celebrated Saints
Surrogate Fathers
Royal Icons
Inspiring Leaders
....And a great deal more.

Given the proposed qualifiers listed above: consider as expressed a century ago Du Bois's disposition regarding forgiving slave-holders, and then meditate on the mind-bending absurdity of the extent to which women are victimized by human trafficking in 2017. How insane is it that we allow so much tragedy to mar the lives of those on whom we depend for so much? The question is one which can be linked directly to current headlines on immigration:

"Women, unaccompanied minors, and those denied asylum are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, including while in transit and upon arrival in destination countries." (2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Dept of State, p. 23)

It would be easy--as some in fact have understandably done--for women to succumb to bitterness and rage in the face of unrelenting abuse and oppression. Per Du Bois's observation, and as we can still see in the modern era, the high crimes committed against them have been too heinous and the denial of basic human and civil rights too inexcusable.

Nevertheless, a seemingly innate identification with life's capacity for redemption in the form of grace and beauty, amounting to a measure of quiet majesty, has enabled many to advance in spite of the incredible adversity before them. You could even make a case for the argument that history has often partnered with the laboring souls of women to demonstrate the irrefutable validity and indispensable value of compassion. Certainly the life journey and continuing mission of Charter for Compassion founder Karen Armstrong supports such a proposal.

The Famous and the Lesser-Known

A lot of globally-famous examples are known to us, such as: Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San Suu Kyi; the country of Liberia's and the continent of Africa's first head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; and Pakistan's celebrated advocate for girls education as well the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Prize for Peace, Malala Yousafzai.

famousandlesserknownNumerous others are less well-known. The great Harlem Renaissance comedienne, Jackie "Moms" Mabley (Loretta Mary Aiken, 1894 or 1897 depending on source, until 1975), endured while an adolescent violent sexual assaults resulting in unexpected traumatizing pregnancies. Still, somehow, she went on to become one of the most celebrated groundbreaking entertainers of her time. Mabley's ability to make the world laugh, and her insistence that nothing in life was more important than recognizing the power of love to heal humanity of its inclinations toward hatred and violence won over audiences across color lines and made her a wealthy woman. (Vintage photograph of Mabley by Michael Ochs).

A Radically-Transcendent Kind of Compassion

Part of what makes forgiving the unforgivable possible is the refusal to allow inhumane actions committed against us to determine the significance or meaning of our individual life story. For most, that refusal is likely an instinctive response rather than a conscious choice. But more and more people are beginning to affirm it as the latter.

When threatened by destruction, the will to survive can flex its muscles in some astonishing ways. Among its most impressive responses is the impulse of certain women and men who are oppressed to look beyond their own agonies and discover how oppressors, too, suffer from the very inhumanity they inflict upon fellow humans. Theirs might take a different form: like that of well-concealed phobias, a shattered psyche skillfully projecting an illusion of well-being, or a crippling addiction obscured by material wealth. However it manifests, the corrupted humanity of one who persecutes another can result in losses just as great, or greater than, those experience by one who is oppressed.

Does that mean their transgressions should be tolerated pending the outcome of some type of cosmic justice? No.

What it does mean is that a pathway to empathy exists and where there is empathy there is a potential for a radically-transcendent kind of compassion. It is the kind that allowed survivors of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, on June 18, 2015, to tell the hate-filled shooter Dylann Roof they forgave him in the name of love. The same kind that has seen wealthy celebrities walk away from glamorous pampered lifestyles to work as farmers or soup kitchen managers where they could make a tangible difference in people's lives, one they could see or feel up-close-and-personal.

It is the kind of compassion that gives no real reason to believe its immediate application will solve the world's most distressing destructive problems. Instead, it provides a quality of hopefulness exemplified by the lives of so many women, whether celebrated or obscure, who had every reason to give up their dreams and convictions but who never did. Why, we might ask, was that? The answer for many was because they believed that even if they failed as individuals, something greater for which they had already sown seeds would pick up wherever they left off. Consequently, their faith, their labors, their commitment and compassion would somehow at some unknown moment prove worthwhile.

Women's History Month 2017

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  • charter brand transp blue mediumCharter for Compassion provides an umbrella for people to engage in collaborative partnerships worldwide. Our mission is to bring to life the principles articulated in the Charter for Compassion through concrete, practical action in a myriad of sectors.


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