Compassion and Politics

In the mid 1990s, I saw Dead Man Walking for the first time, and it blew my world open. It is about Sr. Helen Prejean’s relationship with a death-row inmate in Louisiana, which lasted up until his execution. The inmate was convicted for a murder he did commit, and she still signed on as his spiritual advisor. The depth of their relationship changed everything for me. This was a time I thought I believed in capital punishment, but that was before I knew this kind of compassion was possible.

Over time, I have thought more about the meaning of compassion. it specifically means to suffer with. It is a simple idea, not unrelated to empathy, that remains startlingly difficult for most of us to manage, especially when dealing with anyone who doesn’t have our last name, skin color, sexual orientation, nationality or speak our language. Compassion is a few more things, I have come to understand: it is the opposite of judgment. Judgment is easy, almost a knee-jerk response, and it is a defense against compassion. Compassion requires some emotional labor. Also, most of us have to be intentional about compassion in a way we don’t about judgment. Compassion is something we choose.

We are a young nation, and compassion has not been a part of our rhetoric for much of it, or at least it hasn’t been a part of our practice. There are certain things we value more. We prefer the bully to the bullied, for example. We like winners. We have more respect for the perpetrator than the victim. Nothing passive appeals to us. We like a hero. Not the boring kind of hero, like a homeless woman who has managed to remain thoughtful, caring and sane even though she sleeps in a folding chair at night. But the Matt-Damon-surviving-on-Mars kind of hero, or anyone who can save us from intergalactic annihilation.

Our resistance to compassion, or perhaps our general ignorance of it, became especially evident when we elected a known racist and bully, whose political arsenal centered around building a wall to protect the nation only from its dark-skinned immigrants. There are some who loved his candor. They overlooked his lies and sexual indiscretions, because he said what they wanted to say, and took on an establishment they felt overlooked by. His conversation around immigrants and immigration felt welcome, though it was lacking in compassion; his bellicose language around defeating international terrorists reminded a lot of us of a bygone era when no one was required to take into account the shades of gray, and where racism and sexism were wholly acceptable.

With purely black-and-white lenses, it might seem as though someone sitting to rot in one of our federal prisons must deserve to be there, and undocumented immigrants should be deported because they should never have come. End of story. 

But maybe there’s more to the story. I remember talking to a woman in Ohio, one summer, who worked with migrant workers. She collected clothes for people who walked across the border with only what they had on, hiking through the hot sun up through the middle part of the country to the north where there was work. That is thousands of miles on foot in one outfit. Some showed up sick, but were terrified to go to a hospital because they were undocumented. Compassion would mean suffering with these men and women. Empathy would put ourselves in their place, wondering what we would have done in the same spot — stuck somewhere with little to hope for, yearning to breathe free. It is the same feeling that got thousands of people on boats in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the lifespan was barely 40 to begin with, to voyage to America. Think of the sanitation; the rats; the rampant seasickness. Think of the likelihood of winding up broke and sick in some New York tenement, but still clinging to the hope that you wouldn’t.

It is hard to think of all of that when you are in your pajamas browsing the web ,and reading headlines about brown-skinned immigrants spilling across an unsecured border, supposedly aiming to rape and kill. But compassion invites us to think of what it might be to have only two legs, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and an absurd amount of hope. It reminds us that nothing separates us from a guy tramping through the desert in search of a dream other than circumstances we had no control over. The thin line of separation between us and any of these people is a little bit of luck. When we are groping for a bridge, a way to understand, compassion is that bridge. It opens the door to curiosity, and quiets our fear. Compassion is a tough road, but these times are as good as any to choose it anyway.