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💔 Obstacles to Compassion

C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels
Dear Friends,
This week we are reflecting on compassion and what gets in the way of compassionate responses.
This comes up for various reasons: the global pandemic we now living in, celebrating the life and witness of Rep. John Lewis whose whole life was one of compassionate response, calling us to get into “good trouble.” And because of something Katniss Everdeen said in the the second book of The Hunger Games.
That’s right. Let me back up for a minute.
Our family loves road trips and part of that love is the time it gives us to listen to audio books. On move from Camas, WA to Greensboro, NC we took ten days to drive listen through Lemony Snickett’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” corpus. That has in turn become a kind of canon for our family.
This time, on our drive to and from Ocracoke Island, we listened through books two and three of the Hunger Games. Which will make you think a lot about empire, power, and revolution, if that is your thing.
In one scene in Catching Fire (Book 2), Gale, one of the protagonists and best friend of Katniss, is being whipped in the town square by the head “peacekeeper” Thread. It is a brutal scene that I won’t recount here, but it brings Gale within inches of his life. The part that struck me this time around is when Katniss looks back on that day and notices that, “Yesterday, the square emptied so quickly after Gale’s whipping.” There was a town gathered around, watching this unjust beating of Gale, and it is only Katniss (a victor of the Hunger Games so she has relatively more positional power) who steps in initially to try and stop the beating. As soon as Thread is convinced to stop the beating people flee, rather than come to Gale’s aid or see how they could help. Fear overrides compassion. Only Katniss and a couple others were willing to get into “good trouble” which saved the life of Gale. Why? What causes some to respond one way, and others to turn away?
The query for the week:
What are the obstacles (whether legitimate or not) to a compassionate response to another human being?
Thank you for reading, and I hope you will find ways to get into good trouble this week in honor of John Lewis.

Reflection: What Gets in the Way of Compassion?
“Belief is security. Knowing, maintaining control, forcing certain outcomes, refusing to allow the Spirit to overcome our ‘laws’ - this is security. But faith, obedience, taking risk, stepping out into the darkness, following only a still small voice that is insecurity.” - Anthony De Mello
I have been thinking a lot about compassion. Covid19 is certainly a big part of this. How do we account for our responses, or lack of responses, to one another in this ongoing crisis? Who gets prioritized when the money is tight? Who is willing to go beyond offering “a word of support” to taking actual steps, personal risks, putting something on the table when a compassionate response is needed?
What does compassion call us to today?
Millions of Americans are out of work. Once rent protection ends, more than 20 million people will face potential evictions (one estimate says 40 million during Covid19).
Wearing masks has become a political dividing point for some. There have been plenty of articles and anecdotes about who is and isn’t wearing masks. For me, it is certainly one way to be compassionate towards others, as well as oneself and ones family. As a person who has lived with chronic asthma, I take wearing a mask seriously for many reasons.
This week congress has been debating the stimulus. What started out as an already far too meager boost of $600 in unemployment is now likely to be cut by $400 or altogether. As congress debates the amount of crumbs to throw to struggling Americans they try to sneak into the relief bill $686,000,000 for greater militarization. This isn’t work. Our GDP is the worse than it was during the Great depression.
Meanwhile, business like Amazon, and organizations of all sizes play fast and loose with people’s livelihoods and health. Here are some numbers for how some Americans are doing during the pandemic.
Robert Reich
Since the start of the pandemic:

— Jeff Bezos' wealth has grown by $73,000,000,000

— Mark Zuckerberg's wealth has grown by $31,000,000,000

— 30,000,000 Americans are unemployed

— 29,000,000 Americans are at risk of eviction

Break up Big Tech. Tax the rich.
In the face of a global health pandemic, a pandemic of racism and violence against others, and the pandemic of poverty:
What does compassion call us to today?
This got me thinking about another question. Why does it seem so hard, so counter to our nature to offer the compassionate response? What are the obstacles to compassion? What keeps me from responding compassionately? What keeps you from doing the same?
I want to know: what gets in the way of compassion?
From the simple things to the far more complex. What stands in the way of moving towards other individuals, even when it is (or even just feels) risky?
How you would respond to this question? What are the obstacles (whether legitimate or not) to a compassionate response to another human being?
I turned to twitter to see what folks there said. Here are a few of the really great responses.
Eileen Flanagan
@cwdaniels Fear and greed are big. Unresolved trauma doesn't help.
Peterson Toscano
@cwdaniels Many have already said fear, which is what I immediately thought.
I would add pain.
While suffering can make us empathetic towards the sufferings of others, it can also crush us, distract us, and limit our ability to see beyond the wall of pain blocking our path.
Maximilian Schulz
@cwdaniels The other person acts or behaves in ways you dislike.
(There's a good chance that you do those things yourself and unconsciously project your aversion for yourself and your own actions onto the other person)
M From The Karma Federation 💙💚🔺
@cwdaniels IMO poor incentives and conditioning + a lack of training. I see compassion as a privilege and a skill that those with their basic needs met can afford to exercise. But if you're born in an environment that incentivizes you to serve yourself before others then you might not learn
Corey Easterday
@cwdaniels Apathy. Cynicism. It’s easy to overlook the opportunities for compassion right in front of us if we feel our actions won’t move the needle or yield the desired result.

To that end I suppose it’s just a focus on self in general instead of stepping out to try & benefit the other.
Caleb Safra
@cwdaniels ego and unresolved/unadressed pain.
Do any of these speak to you? I know they do me. I’d love to hear your response to this question. You can respond to this email, write on the Twitter thread, or share in the Newsletter chat group.
For my part, I think there are a few things that come to mind as obstacles:
  • Implicit and Explicit Biases - how we feel about others, our own prejudices that we have grown up with, have been influenced by the community we are a part of, the news we listen to and more impacts whether we care or not.
  • Preference falsification - a concept from political science which describes why people in the upper echelon of power do not speak to their real preferences (when it goes against orders). There is a fear of loss of power. Loss of access.
  • Distorted theology - A huge influence on people’s responses is distorted theology. This is where we see people defending those in power over and against the vulnerable, those protesting for their lives, those challenging the status quo. This is when we hear things like “they deserve it” and a scapegoating of others so we do not have to feel guilty for not responding. The religion of empire is a compassionate-less theology. Or its compassion is two-faced and hollow.
  • Wealth and privilege - I’m convinced more and more that the more money, power, and privilege one carries the less compassionate folks are. Many got to whether they are not because of compassion but because of lacking it.
What are the obstacles to compassion?
What are the obstacles to compassion?
Compassion closes the gap between those who are alone, vulnerable, at risk. Compassion may cost us something, but in doing so it seeks to level the field for others or protect them from ongoing harm. When Bayard Rustin calls for angelic troublemakers, I think he is talking about compassion:
We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.
Compassionate responses are responses of the movement and of movement. They build and they move towards pain, move towards the unknown. Compassionate responses move because of commitment, practice, and conviction in the face of odds not being in one’s favor.
❓Query for Personal Reflection
  • What are the obstacles (whether legitimate or not) to a compassionate response to another human being?
  • What stands in the way of moving towards other individuals, even when it is (or even just feels) risky? 
  • What does compassion call us to today?
🗣 Join the Discussion
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🗺 New Opportunities: Spiritual Direction and Courses
I am very excited to announce new opportunities to work with you and your communities in the coming year. I am available for:
  • spiritual direction
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🐦 Tweet Thread of the Week
the good news is my custom facemask arrived, the bad news is that they printed my face 20% too large
🌱🌲 Nurselog Note of the Week
The Nurselog is my “digital garden,” a kind of personal wiki with notes and ideas of things that I am working on and/or find interesting. This week’s note is: Preference Falsification
🔗 Dress Down Friday Links
John Lewis — Love in Action - On Being Podcast
The Influence You Have: Why We Fail To See Our Power Over Others
Are we ready for this task? By Greg Woods
Malcolm Gladwell: How I Rediscovered Faith
How to Be Alone - This American Life
📆 Upcoming Events
Freedom Church of the Poor - Challenging Distorted Theologies of Empire
Freedom Church of the Poor - Challenging Distorted Theologies of Empire
💚🧠 Final Thought
Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Latin American Liberation Theology says, “Love of neighbor involves demands which challenge our apathy and our desire to avoid problems.” 
Thank you for reading,
Wess Daniels
Greensboro, NC (Haw River Watershed)
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C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels @cwdaniels

Old and New (Spiritual) Technologies For Life Today in the Face of Empire. Renewal and change in the hopes of mobilizing communities for love & liberation.

Wess Daniels
Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College

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