Being Present to What is Really Needed
Collaborative Compassion: A Secular Perspective
by Chris Highland
One sunny Bay Area afternoon I was walking down a sidewalk under shade trees with my class of developmentally disabled adults. As their instructor for six years, teaching “community living skills,” it was both a liberation and a lesson to lead students out of the classroom to be exposed to the wider community and vice versa. Three boys passed us on the other side of the street, making faces and pointing. I stepped out of our odd-looking group and stared. They ran off, realizing I was not one of the odd ones. Yet, I was.
I’ve carried this lesson through the years – it’s good and right to be a “stranger among the strangest,” willing to step up and step out in the face of ignorance or injustice.
In a recent exchange with a reader of my weekly “Highland Views” column, I found myself addressing the old accusation against nonbelievers: “How can you be good or do good things if you don’t believe in God or the scriptures?” I sensed a genuine interest in a response, so I replied with a natural question: “Do we only know what’s right and good by reading a book or believing in a God?” If the conversation had progressed, I might have been more pointed, “So, you wouldn’t know that murder, injustice or stealing is wrong unless your holy book told you?” “Why can’t I show compassion like you?”
Secularism is comfortable with uncomfortable questions. This is especially true concerning compassionate action which, as I see it, requires no religious faith. A humanistic response to human needs can be just as passionate and meaningful as any spiritual intervention. Any person with a heart can step up and out to care.
Serving for years as an interfaith chaplain in a variety of contexts, I was called to give compassionate responses every day. More often than not, the most effective way to help others was to see things realistically and act pragmatically. In a sense, compassion was simply assumed. My colleagues and I grounded our work among very vulnerable and wounded people on a living foundation of “presence” as we “represented the compassion of the community” who supported and guided our work, from Protestant to Pagan, Catholic to Evangelical, Jewish to Muslim, nonprofits and individuals – believers and nonbelievers.
Two stories, one from jail and one from the street, illustrate my view of compassion and justice.
Locked in a cell with eight women, we had finished our evening interfaith service where we sang old spirituals and folk songs, had a vibrant discussion on whether God was male or female, and concluded with a chant-type prayer. I sat with the ladies, some waiting for trial or sentencing for charges ranging from theft, drug possession, and prostitution to murder. The conversation continued as I became the one waiting for the female deputy to come down the long corridor and let me out.
When a new deputy beginning her shift finally arrived to “do a head count,” she called out names and each woman spoke up. There was a giggle. The deputy looked up from her chart, startled to see a man locked in the cell. The door open, I said good-night to the women, including the deputy, and walked out into the fresh night air.
Standing with a group of men on a downtown street corner, I noticed the furtive glances from passersby as they hurried on, scurried into stores, or crossed the street. The guys looked like the stereotype of “the homeless”: long hair, beards, guitars, packs, rough around the edges. With my beret, Birkenstocks, beard and jeans I blended in – at least a little.
The next week I read a letter in the newspaper from an elderly woman who complained, “I don’t feel safe going downtown anymore with all those men hanging out.” I smiled, having compassion for her while sensing this was an opportunity. I wrote a letter to the paper suggesting she might have seen “the chaplain” in that group, and I may have had a seminary student with me, or, as often happened, a local priest, rabbi, minister or Rotary president. I ended with an invitation for the lady to accompany me some afternoon on a walk through town. Needless to say, she never responded (though her husband did, with an angry phone message).
What I learned from these experiences is that compassion begins and ends with presence and identity – being fully present with vulnerable people, actively hearing their unheard voices, and assuming an appropriate level of identification with them. In other words, to be human together.
Finding a Place to Belong
Columnist David Brooks has written, “We’ve made our culture a spiritual void,” Learning how people address the trauma in their lives, he responds that we need more “community resources” for people to “process their moral pain together.” Brooks, like many others, defaults to descriptions such as “soul wounds” and “sacred space.” There’s nothing wrong with these terms, unless they deflect attention from the immediate needs.
In my experience, many spiritual words we use (like “spiritual”) can and do deflect and distract. Brooks sees a “spiritual” void and uses language of morality. Could this be framed in a more inclusive way, using words that have concrete content and communicate acceptance without reference to theological constructs?
When Randy entered our chaplaincy office dripping with sweat and rain, dropping his heavy pack on the carpet, he sat down, looked around, and asked, “So, what do you do here?” After handing him a cup of coffee and energy bar I smiled and said, “THIS is what we do.” I pointed to our donated supplies – sleeping bags, blankets, ponchos, sox, bus tickets, grocery vouchers. He nodded, impressed. Then he stunned us with a powerful line I’ve never forgotten: “Do you know what we really need out on the street? A place to belong.”
A place to belong. An inclusive way to put it, welcoming to all. Randy found that place among us for a few years, before he dropped the heavy pack of his body and passed on. He left us the gift of his smile, his helpful nature, his reasonable attitude about life, and one important lesson about compassion: When you think you’re the one doing the service, in reality it may be you are the one most in need. I was the seminary-trained church-ordained professional who grew up in the church, guided by faith for many years, yet the big, bearded guy with the backpack taught me the essence of compassion: belonging.
Stepping back for a wider perspective, I find much to wonder about. Human culture has had religion for thousands of years. Are we more ethical, more just, more compassionate? Perhaps. Yet, couldn’t we equally argue that as we “progress and evolve” we are simply becoming more “humane and human”? Has the ancient teaching not to harm others as we wouldn’t want them to harm us (Confucius) been more effective as an instruction to preach or a principle to teach? Couldn’t we view acts of compassion by individuals, communities, or nations in the “light of reason,” not merely the “light of faith”?
I’m one of those who mostly doesn’t care about those distinctions. If an act of kindness comes from a person of faith or one without faith, does it matter to the person helped? Too often it seems a believer brings attention to their personal faith, advertising that they are acting because of their faith and because God sent them. That’s fine, I suppose, unless this tries to claim that “faith causes kindness.” What ever happened to the old saying that someone did something “out of the goodness of their heart”? That’s basic humanism.
This attitude comes through loud and clear in many disasters when it becomes fairly obvious that some missionaries dress as “chaplains” and “samaritans” with a “higher purpose” (proselytizing). Good is good though, and if people are being helped, it’s not for me to criticize, if there is genuine assistance. I would only question whether “higher” things get in the way of “lower” purposes, such as asking people what they need rather than what we need to do for them in the name of [blank].
David Brooks observes that “people who are recovering from trauma often embrace the language of myth … .” This is undoubtedly true. I saw that firsthand in jails and on the streets among wounded people stuck in cycles of poverty, addiction, and violence. Wounded women and men need places to belong – or “sacred spaces” as Brooks puts it – but how do we provide the spaces and places for those who have journeyed out beyond the language of myth and faith? For instance, Alcoholics Anonymous works for thousands, but the “Greater Power” assumed by the 12-steps doesn’t speak to many in recovery. Non-theistic options include SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). Offering alternatives seems both wise and compassionate.
Practicing Compassion Together
Brooks ends his perceptive article with a call for a “thick moral culture” where people “have to grow a soul big enough to enclose the traumas that haunt them.” Interesting, but once again this begs the question: what if a significant number of those haunting traumas are rooted in religious beliefs themselves? Denying or ignoring the role supernatural beliefs can play in the causes of suffering can lead to the opposite of compassion. What could be possible if believers and nonbelievers discovered creative ways of practicing collaborative compassion?
One obstacle that can block collaborative compassion is the misunderstanding of reason and emotion. Someone commented, “You talk a lot about reason and being rational. What about the feelings, the emotions? We can’t be in our heads all the time.” I agree. Com-passion has a lot to do with feelings. When we have a “passion for compassion” it says quite a bit about our enthusiasm. It takes deep sensitivity to sit silent in the suffering with another. What we think and feel moves us to do something for others who think and feel. As long as we don’t overemphasize “believing,” I’m all in.
Matthew, a young father living outside with his child, was sitting by himself in a city park sobbing and wailing. His little boy drowned in a swimming pool. As I walked up, accompanied by a colleague who happened to be a police officer, we could only sit with the grieving parent, hug him, and let him know he could talk to us when he was ready. He wasn’t alone.
I’m not sure if the father believed in any God. I knew the officer was Jewish and I was a Christian minister doing interfaith chaplaincy. What was called for in that moment was a silent presence in the face of suffering, and a touch of humanity. I find it significant that the place of meeting, the secular sanctuary, was the open air in the beauty of nature.
An honest practice of collaborative compassion is enlivened by each of these living and growing principles: presence and identity; a willingness to admit we also need compassion; accepting that we are the “odd one out” sometimes; living with the uncomfortable questions; an understanding of nature as common ground; and searching together, with either a sacred or secular worldview, for a place to belong.
Header Photo: Pxhere