“Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.”
I have been chewing on this sentence from my last post. During my stint at the UU church, a lot of energy was spent talking about compassion. This was a catch-all word, used to name classes, in the title of sermons, and battered about by the “higher ups”. I was never comfortable with this talk. But I always blamed it on my hard-ass Calvinist upbringing. My family was never very good at compassion. I heard a lot of “they get what they deserve” as a child, and this was sometimes applied to whole cultures as well. There was a hidden, racist undertone to my family’s attitude about the less fortunate. So I attributed my uncomfortableness with all this Compassionate Talk to learned behavior that I needed to overcome. Now I am not so sure if my unconscious assessment was correct. The sentence above has struck me. Hard. It reminded me of the discomfort I had and has caused me to tease out just what felt wrong about all the Compassionate Talk among the UUs.
I find compassion contains an implication of power. Webster’s defines it as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it (synonym- pity)’. This sounds fine on the surface, but then you get to the parentheses. PITY. There is no dignity in pity. No one wants to be pitied, for the receiver of pity feels shame. So let’s take this one step further. I have compassion for you; I pity you. You, deserving of compassion, feel shame for your circumstance. I have caused you to feel shame. Where is the dignity in that? A more noble approach would be to do as Hitchens says, “prefer dignity for yourself and others.” Work for the betterment of all, yes, but in gratitude and without the implication that your situation is so much greater.
I ended up having to cut and paste this last paragraph right into Facebook. Didn’t really want to do that, but…