When studying activities of human advancement as they take shape throughout history, we find a lot of attention given to the areas of military domination, economic schemes, scientific discoveries, political showmanship, and emerging patterns of social interaction.
The cultural arts, spiritual concerns, and developments in education often appear to be acknowledged less frequently. They are usually somewhere in the background of officially-recorded history functioning like unseen digital code that drives more ostensible programming.
Individual lives can also be that way. They/we get lost or displaced in the dynamically-charged cross-currents of opposing priorities and agendas.
As a species, human beings may not be able to collectively shift from one history-shaping mindset to another in a single instant. But we can, collectively, take time to identify our best options for a sustainable shared future––be they ethical, political, economic, spiritual, or educational in nature––and make them our common goals.
Seeker with the Inkhorn
In the course of composing one life story, my individual character has gone from that of impoverished youth and scuffling student to military veteran, family man, bookseller, caregiver, author, social justice advocate, and artist. Each transformation required exchanges of compassion wherein I was both a recipient and a contributor.
Once, when living in San Francisco, after an emergency situation left me short of funds to pay rent for my downtown studio apartment, an older black man gave me a lesson in practicing and extending compassion without attempting to compromise my physical or psychological well-being in any way. He insisted on giving me the capital needed and asked that I do one thing in return: “Don’t pay me back no money. The next time somebody come to you for help, just give them whatever you can the same as I did for you. Understand?”
I did. And when possible I have.
Later still, as an equal opportunity enforcement counselor for the U.S. Air Force Reserves, I saw up-close-and-personal the way private traumas centered around issues like spouse abuse and alcoholism damage people’s lives. And I saw also how we sometimes so effectively shield ourselves with masks of pretense that we fail daily to recognize the life-preserving need to study and practice that simple, yet so powerful, practice I was taught in San Francisco: the art of compassion.
At the core of all my functional personas has been the seeker with the inkhorn constantly transcribing autobiography into diverse forms of literature and journalism. However, that fundamental anchor at times has also undergone the kind of scrutiny which prompted biographer Annie Cohen-Solal to note the following about Jean-Paul Sartre during a powerful transformational period in his life:
“The writer has to die to give birth to the intellectual in the service of the wretched of the earth.” (Cohen-Solal, Sartre, A Life, 2005 Centennial Edition, p. 359.)
Put less dramatically, the statement means acting beyond the need to express individual creative artistry with a conscious intent to render tangible humanitarian service. Some of our best creative thinkers manage, when possible, to combine the two.
Compassionate Comic Relief
On May 1, 2017, late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel tearfully announced to the world that his son William John Kimmel had been born on April 21 with a pre-existing condition in the form of two life-threatening heart defects requiring immediate surgery. His newly-born son survived the three-hour procedure.
Kimmel used the traumatic incident as a teachable moment to help Americans ' better understand the potential consequences of failing to adopt an adequate national health care program. Being a wealthy man with a published net worth of $35 million, Kimmel could afford the best care available for his son and might easily have kept silent about the matter. But compassion convinced him to avoid apathy and consider the plight of those in similar situations who do not possess his wealth:
“We need to take care of each other. I saw a lot of families there [at the hospital] and no parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child's life. It just shouldn't happen.”
Think of Kimmel’s words in the context of: the global immigration crisis, the unhinged assassins whose supposed religious radicalization is often traced back to documented mental disorders, the feverishly-toiling single parent attempting to hold down two or three jobs to earn the equivalent of a living wage, or the child-turned-killer-soldier who one day will look back on his life and wonder why he was never allowed to be a child and how can he now reconcile himself with the blood that haunts his sleep. In such contexts, Kimmel’s words hit home with ferociously bitter truth in many different cultures and languages.
Moreover, compassion was not only something he extended to others. It was a grace many through social media in turn extended to his family in the form of prayers (regardless of religious affiliation), emotional support (demographic classification notwithstanding), and simple hopes for the best possible outcome pending future surgeries for his newborn.
The comedian’s candor reminded us of a truism too often forgotten: Just as the richest, most powerful and famous among us can be humbled by painful mortal circumstances, so too can the poorest among us harness the powers of collective will and wisdom to impact patterns of history and human behavior for the better.
The Health Care Labyrinth and Those Who Have-Not
Unlike Kimmel, my colleague Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, the New Mexico-based essayist, journalist, poet, playwright, and social critic, does not have millions of dollars at his disposal. In his battle against cancer for the past few years, he has been very grateful for the medical assistance made available through former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act but now feels endangered by attempts to dismantle it. He has in common with Kimmel a deep concern that the Trump administration lacks basic empathy regarding those described as proverbial “have-nots”:
“I do not believe Trump and Republican lawmakers fully appreciate how drastically the Affordable Care Act lowered stress, worry and hopelessness in the states that accepted the Medicaid expansion. It has only been since the expansion that I received regular appointments, check-ups, cancer treatments and follow-up surgery deemed necessary… Twenty-three million Americans… may discover when they need help that they live in the wrong place or need assistance at the wrong time. They will wander lost in the health care labyrinth…Again.” (Wellington, Facing a Health Care Labyrinth)
The image of millions of people wandering through a health care labyrinth does not exactly inspire a sense of compassion-- does it?
Compassion as a Birthright
Back now to that 91-degree Fahrenheit day in July when I entered the world: Had someone cared enough that my mahogany-hued mother could not afford a doctor's attention or a hospital's clean cool room at the time of my birth, they might have been compassionate enough to somehow make facilities available anyway. Perhaps they might have done the same for any number of women along with the babies--black, white, brown, red or yellow-- they were ushering into the world.
It would have been a kind of good karma for her because she had maintained a home which helped make it possible for numerous extended family members to relocate from the more virulently racist rural areas of Georgia at that time to a somewhat less-aggressively-racist urban center.
Compassion on every side of any given fence, wall, or border can provide a route to mutual understanding capable of voiding the source of destructive conflicts within a community or between nations. But what we call compassion does not weave itself out of particles of nonexistence and then ooze through veils of reality to reshape our consciousness. It is something to which we have to assign concrete value and then: invest in that value in such a way that it is not diminished by threats of war, xenophobia, hate, or the unavoidable demands of change created by history.
We may then throughout various stages of our lives proclaim compassion as a kind of birthright, or as an essential tool capable of correcting an onslaught of modern-day wrongs: be they the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the displacement of populations seeking refuge from war and starvation, or the unresolved questions and decisions spinning like lost comets within the universe of our collective soul.