From November 1-7, I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada. With a myriad of religions and spiritual traditions represented, this was my third Parliament. Inspiring people from all over the planet gathered to teach, to listen, to learn, and to grow as human beings. From there, we take that wisdom and knowledge back to our communities and live by example – at least I try.
I was struck this Parliament by two things: That our planet is in peril. Literally. And, Compassion is something that needs to be taught? I am asking, not stating.
I attended the Charter for Compassion Dinner with founder, Karen Armstrong. Always inspiring, Armstrong talked about the undeniable need for compassion and how without compassion, we will lead ourselves to more destruction, more wars, and more of everything that ails us as human beings.
While I do see a need for such a Charter, I am perplexed why we even need one. Why, as human beings who have so much wisdom and truth from the past, do we even need to be reminded that we must live as compassionate people? Sadly, however, we do need to be reminded. Every day. Every minute. Every second.
Today, while Americans give thanks for family, friends, our homes, and our worldly possessions, approximately 554,000 people are homeless, with 193,000 of those fellow human beings without any sort of shelter whatsoever. And, 41,000,000 are without enough food. With those staggering statistics, beginning tonight at 5PM, after Americans have stuffed their bodies with enough food to feed all the hungry people on the planet (aside from Yemen, where half the population is literally dying from starvation), many will contribute to the Black Friday fiasco – ripping items from each other’s hands, screaming at each other, and even trampling each other. I am certain that this year, we will also see deaths from guns. All for a bargain. Because this is America.
Personally, as a San Franciscan, I am struck at the beginning of this holiday season by the sheer desperation of those who survived the Camp Fire, and more, those who didn’t. A little more than a week ago, life in Paradise, CA., was normal. Plans were being made for the holidays, kids were in school, work was being done – and in less than 3 hours, a whole town was obliterated. As the smoke rested over California, and especially here in San Francisco, I realized I was breathing in, “particulate matter” – that being people’s homes, their possessions, their animals, the land itself, the wildlife, chemicals from things that melted, and, worst of all, human remains.
Yet, I am alive. I have my home, my animals, and I am not in a tent in a Walmart shopping center, as the Norovirus invades my body and my already weakened immune system.
I could name all the things we are grappling with right now, not only here in the United States, but throughout the entire world, but, we, as informed individuals, get it.
We see. We listen. We hear. And we know.
How can I not be compassionate? How can we not be compassionate?
I had the privilege of spending some time with Mahatma Gandhi’s Grandson, Arun Gandhi, while at Parliament. What a delight. In the talk he gave before we spent some one-on-one time, Arun talked about Compassionate Capitalism. Although he is still working on expanding this idea, I walked away from that talk and our personal interaction, with a new understanding of compassion. Compassionate Capitalism. What does it mean? Where does it start? Who is responsible for enacting it? Answer: We all are. Compassion isn’t just about caring, it isn’t just about action, and it’s not just from me, or you, or our communities – Compassion is and must be a collective, world-wide effort.
In what seems to be something we are all born with and do – our very existence comes down to making money. We must survive. Yet, must our survival come at the cost of someone else’s survival? This is where I am perplexed. If my contribution to capitalism as a consumer harms people, then how can I, just one person, make that stop? Do I not buy the plastic water bottles that are corroding our oceans? Do I not buy clothing made in sweat shops? Do I not eat meat? The reality is, what I do here, effects what happens over there. Yet, I don’t think people truly understand this. Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, El Salvador, the Central African Republic, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and so many other regions in power and in upheaval – it is all connected. This isn’t just about one country, it is about all of us and our individual and collective accountability.
The real quandary and question is, Where are the moral and ethical boundaries when it comes to how we live in the world? Because I admit, everything I do, harms someone else, somewhere else in the world. And I am overwhelmed by that.
I often wonder if people waited in line to feed someone hungry, for as long as they wait in line to get that sweet, new phone at the Apple Store, if that might make a difference. Or, perhaps, the person who can afford a mortgage or rental payment of $5000 a month, scaled back their living situation (if even for a year or two), and instead, paid $2500 for themselves, and put the other $2500 toward someone else’s rent or mortgage. When I have broached this idea with people, I get push back. They say, It isn’t my responsibility to pay someone else’s rent, or give them food, or pay their medical bills. My response to this attitude, with an added shrug of my shoulders … It isn’t?
These remarks come with an assumed stereotype that those that are in need aren’t working, or are addicted, are “lazy,” are “freeloaders,” came over “illegally.” Give me a break. This is so incorrect, it infuriates me. For me, life is give and take and the ripple effect of not caring, seeing, or helping, is incredibly apparent in our world right now. Just look around you. The human struggle is real.
I have to ask again, Compassion must be taught? Apparently so. For Compassion to thrive, it must be all encompassing. It is not simply an act of kindness by giving that stranger a dollar, but compassion is bound up in every single act we do as human beings. Compassion is the connection to our soul and our own being, and that of other’s. Compassion is the Divine, in human form. Fascinatingly enough, I think of animals and their innate compassion. We see it again and again in stories from Elephant herds, to Orca Pods – animals are a living example on what an all-encompassing practice of compassion truly looks like.
In closing, I admit it. I am a Debbie Downer, I know. I won’t expect an invitation to your holiday party.
I could have made a fluffy post about how thankful I am today, about how I have my health, a roof over my head, and blah, blah, blah. Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful. However, my understanding is that it’s not about me. None of this is. But all of this, everything and everyone – is about all of us.
Too radical? Too Pollyanna? Too holier-than-thou? If not this attitude, than what? What is compassion to you? What do you see as the answer to all that ails us? How can we not make it about all of us, when the selfishness of our world, our inability to act, our complacency – is literally allowing people, animals and our planet, to die? Try approaching this idea with anyone, and you will get, most assuredly, a glazed, deer-in-the-headlights, look. And, most certainly a, But wait, enough about me. Let’s talk about me…
If denying our selfishness and realizing it is about all of us, collectively, is too radical, or too this, or too that – I’m OK with that. Because I will say it again. Compassion isn’t just a thought, or a reaction, or an action. Compassion is a way of being. Compassion is a way of reaching so deep inside ourselves, it scares us. Compassion should make us vulnerable and true. Compassion is being a way.
Compassion. Simply be.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative in several different positions. As an Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, works at St Anthony’s, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.