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The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In Our Quest for Compassionate Communities

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

Is the world becoming more compassionate or more hateful? This prickly question is eloquently answered in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of revolution in France, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …

Although Dickens was writing about “radical opposites” in places like London and Paris 160 years ago, he could easily have been writing a column in the New Yorker about the confusing dichotomies present in our domestic and global situation today.

Clergy at Standing Rock – Photo:    unitedchurchofchrist, C.c. 2.0 sa

Clergy at Standing Rock – Photo: unitedchurchofchrist, C.c. 2.0 sa

Morally, politically, socially, economically, spiritually, we are at a crossroads. As more and more people are awakening to the need to have compassion for our Earth, we are also facing stubborn disdain on the part of those who believe the climate crisis is a hoax. Similarly, as the world becomes more of an interfaith global village, expanding our concept of family and cultivating compassion for those we once ignored or feared, we are simultaneously witnessing an unprecedented rise in nationalism and a disturbing increase in the number of websites that spew hate, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia – a veritable hornet’s nest where compassion has become the enemy.

In which of these two realities will we choose to live? Is one truer than the other, or are they both true and happening simultaneously? Our pride in a journalism that historically demanded the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has been severely challenged as we try to make sense of “fake news,” foreign intervention in our political process, and the crassness of our body politic. And how does the desire to build a wall of steel or cement to keep out poor and oppressed immigrants become more important than keeping our government up and running? Whose values are navigating our future?

Is this the America our founding fathers and mothers fought for and dreamed about?

Our answer can only be a resounding “no.” Nevertheless, I believe the ferment we are experiencing at this moment is absolutely necessary. It offers hard-core evidence of significant positive change taking place in our consciousness and in our society, sparking innovations that will ultimately lead us to sustaining a more compassionate world.

The Good News

This process is necessarily painful. But we must not forget, as Dickens wrote, it is the best of times as well as the worst of times.

Consider:

  • The notion of compassion for minorities and women is evident everywhere. The Women’s March, galvanizing the country after the 2016 US election, was followed by the Black Lives Matter movement and by #Me Too. Interest in the political process is at an all time high. More women have been elected to public office than ever before.  They represent diverse ethnicities, religions, and sectors, a rainbow of humanity appearing for the first time in government.

  • Collaboration among various faiths and interfaith groups, once a far-off ideal, is growing every year. A superb example last year was Standing Rock, in the Dakotas. Clergy from multiple faiths converged and held vigils in solidarity with First Nation peoples to protect native lands and resources from government takeover.  Simultaneously representatives from numerous indigenous tribes gathered together for the first time as a unified front. A compassionate society was established at Standing Rock in a matter of days in below zero temperatures.

  • For every hate crime committed and reported there are countless examples of compassion happening all around us, e.g., Jews offering their synagogues for prayer to Muslims whose mosques were burned by arsonists and Muslims raising money to repair Jewish graves that were desecrated by anti-Semites.  These iconic examples of compassion and empathy, unfortunately, often remain under the radar.

  • Developments worth noting in the scientific community include the study of the long-term affects of meditation on our brains and the cultivation of compassion in society. Once considered strictly the purview of spiritual leaders, matters concerning meditation, contemplation, mindfulness and the care of the soul are now being researched in the laboratories of prominent academic institutions. At Stanford University, for instance, H.H. the Dalai Lama and neurosurgeon Dr. James Doty founded the Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

Like major media, we can emphasize the negative aspects of what is happening, or we can take it upon ourselves to publicize and promote the positive developments that indicate we are indeed “waking up” and taking greater responsibility for our actions and the nature of the society we have created.

Consider the history of the Charter of Compassion, created by religion author Karen Armstrong ten years ago in collaboration with other religious and spiritual leaders, following her 2008 prizewinning TED talk. A description of a compassionate community can be found on the Charter of Compassion website:

A community where compassion is fully alive, is a thriving, resilient community whose members are moved by empathy to take compassionate action, are able to confront crises with innovative solutions, are confident in navigating changes in the economy and the environment, and are resilient enough to bounce back readily from natural and man-made disasters.

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Although the early work of the Charter was focused on building a network of cities, it soon became evident that communities both larger and smaller than cities want to join a global movement in which compassion is at the heart of a community’s activities. The Charter’s growing network of Compassionate Communities now includes cities, towns, townships, shires, hamlets, villages, neighborhoods, islands, states, provinces, counties, republics, and countries.

At the Toronto Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Karen Armstrong added an important nuance to our quest for a compassionate society that bears remembering: "At the heart of compassion, there must be a grain of discomfort." Compassionate cities will not be “comfortable” places, she emphasized. Once compassion is established as a desirable way of life, we will still be exposed to the rough and tumble of working out what our world should be like. She notes:

“A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city!  A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry.  Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive.  Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.”

Awareness of the inevitable discomfort we will experience – even in compassionate cities – will prepare us to become more resilient in the best of times and the worst of times.

Header Photo: Pxhere