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Selective Compassion

Carol Guzy, 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, recently shared this with the Washington Post Magazine:

“Someone once told me it’s not imaging how you would feel in a given situation:  It’s the ability to break through your own veil of life experiences and truly see how someone else is feeling.  We’ve seen throughout history how selective compassion breeds hate and conflict. In my humble opinion if all life is not equal to the same level of kindnesss we wish for ourselves, it becomes the foundation for abuse.  And when we turn away from oppression, our silence becomes complicity.”

When I was younger (much, much) I had the notion that being Christian was all about being Christ-like.  I’ve since learned that notion was slightly misguided.  It didn’t actually take long.  Listening to congregants of the Antioch Baptist Church talk about their neighbors and the niggers quickly put a kibosh on my young ideals.  Get all dressed up, praise Jesus and, then, forget to practice what he preached.  Oops. But, a fine way to spend a Sunday morning (and evening and Wednesday night), eh?

The idea of selective compassion was brought back to the fore for me on May 12 when Michael Sam was picked in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams.  I knew that things were going to get ugly so I didn’t bother to read the sports pages, the not-sports pages, intewebz action, or other contrived controversy.  Until I read George Takei’s Kiss Seen Round the World when it made its way to my Facebook timeline.

This met my expectations of the fallout:

Sadly, many commentators acted with revulsion. Newscasters in Dallas walked off the set in disgust. Conservatives blasted the networks for even airing that moment. And let’s face it, many people cringed in their living rooms. Even some gay people, unused to seeing such affection displayed, worried, perhaps rightfully so, about the backlash.

Then, the fabulous Mr. Takei echoed my own sentiment’s here:

To say you stand for equal rights but that you don’t want to ever see or hear about moments of our intimacy is to deny us again a fundamental aspect of our humanity–the expression of that very love. And guess what? Same-sex marriage ceremonies end in a kiss, so if you’re for marriage equality in principle, you’d best be prepared for some homosexual ritual smooching in practice.If you’re someone who finds yourself repulsed by the idea or the image of two men kissing, ask yourself why that is. Ask how someone else’s love, and how they publicly express it, actually affects your life and the enjoyment of your freedoms and liberty. The visceral negative reaction many experience comes down to what I call the “ick” factor–seeing or thinking about something to which we are unaccustomed, and reacting with an “ick.”  There are in fact lots of things in life that make people go “ick.” Broccoli, for example, is simply abhorrent to some. But “ick” is never a sound basis for public policy or law. Your own discomfort is just your own issue, and you can’t and shouldn’t make it other people’s problems.

So, of course, I shared.  An extended family member that I’ve not yet had the opportunity to meet, responded:

I consider myself a child of God therefore, this display of men embraced as man and woman I am not fond of, as well as not an image I would prefer for already confused children. My reply that went unanswered: So, love, my question is here is three-fold: Are the ideas of yourself as child of God and lack of fondness for the picture connected? Why do you consider this embrace between men as one of ‘as man and woman’? And, do you presume *everyone* to be a child of God; thus not just having the *right* to love, but the *expectation* to love, share love, show love, be love in His image? I really am curious about your opinion.

In a life shortened to communication by meme, people don’t seem to notice that they’re not living what they are sharing.  If another doesn’t look the way we like, smell the way we think they should, somehow affront our existence by living their own, we actively choose not to engage them–in communication or community.  I’m fortunate that in my travels I get to meet plenty of amazing people.  As I bumble about the US, I’m often quite struck by the incapacity–or, rather the choice not to–to consciously empathize particularly by empaths (those who have the capacity to energetically & emotionally feel others).  One of the things that often strikes most close to my heart is the state of the homeless.  It’s always interesting to observe how little people consider those less fortunate, often discussing with me those with only a street to call home in a derisive manner–forgetting that I, too, am homeless.  The only difference is I more options.    The following video was shared with me via Facebook a few weeks ago.  I ask that you please watch it through.  Though the language spoken by the actor is French, it is quite clear he is asking for help.

 What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) used to be a quite fashionable, at least as a fashion–bracelets and bumper stickers abounded.  I always wondered if people actually asked that question as they moved through daily life,  I’d ask you to ask that now.  And, then, I’d ask that you ask yourself what you would do in the same situation and then answer yourself honestly.  Where does your prejudice lie in this situation?  Why?

My way is to engage as best I can with everyone around me and I wish everyone would do the same.  When I say a simple hello to someone on the street who does not appear to be homeless the responses vary from avoidance to a return hello.  When I say a simple hello to someone who does appear to be homeless, the responses range from the resounding smile that says “I’m seen” or “Who you talking to, lady? Me?” to “You don’t know how you just made my day.”

My stay in San Francisco was instructive at many levels.  In addition to learning there is such a thing as comfortable airbeds, I learned that I adapt my behavior to suit others comfort level, despite being one to otherwise stir the shit pot. I actually embodied the ‘selective compassion’ by choosing not to express myself as I usually would to accommodate others’ discomfort.  In not speaking out with regard to the annoyance that the Young Men’s Christian Association would have a problem with the homeless or prostitutes showing up for healing.

Compassion, used merely when convenient, when comfortable, when it fits only within our constructs of how people should be, and fear of how other see us respond outside of those constructs  (yep, I resembled that remark), is how social justice issues don’t change:  racism, bullying, criminal justice and corrections reform, gang violence, sexual violence, food access,  water allocation, etc.

Kentucky Democratic Representative John Tilley said in PBS’ ‘Prison State’,“We need to distinguish between who we’re mad at and who we’re afraid of” in relation to the criminal justice system.  I believe that applies to how we engage in daily, compassionate activity or the lack thereof.

It’s not enough to quote the Dalai Lama, or pass compassion memes as your truth when you can’t express it for real, where the sole rubber hits the road.  Where soul meets soul on the sidewalks of life.

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