September 2019 - Radical Compassion

Dear friends

Listening to an American writer speak about compassion the other day, I was struck by her words. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and the manhunt for the two brothers that followed for several days, she posted a poem on her blog. It that poem she imagined herself into the place of the 19 year old survivor, Dzhokhar, still on the run, and what he himself might possibly be experiencing in the wake of all that had happened. I can't judge the poem's quality, but in it she expresses a measure of compassion for this now convicted terrorist.

Unsurprisingly, there was a huge kickback online. How dare this woman, so the articles went, write something even slightly sympathetic about something (and, by extension, someone) so terrible? And, of course, we understand that kind of reaction. Demonise the demons and canonise the saints, and don't ever imagine that there is any kind of overlap or exception; or so is truth in the world of tabloid shouting.

Whatever you think of the value of Amanda Palmer's writing, this is what struck me. If one has compassion, then one has compassion. Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, compassion for the other, the enemy, the despised is what happens when one practices compassion. It's not a pick-and-choose sentiment, but a determined attitude. Compassion is not the same as endorsement. One can experience compassion for the perpetrator as for the victim, because one practices compassion: it is not a zero-sum game.

It's not that you or I might practice 'radical compassion', but perhaps that compassion is 'radical' – it goes to the root of things, the root of a person. Am I all saint? Or am I a mysterious combination of saint and sinner, as all people are? Compassion is radical because it goes against our instincts fairly often, and against the baying of the popular press (and sometimes popular opinion). Compassion means to 'suffer with' or alongside. So would it be right to set limits on those with whom I am willing to suffer? Imagining myself into the shoes of another person, whoever that might be, is possibly enough to engender a level of compassion.

Perhaps the most radical form of compassion we can practice is towards ourselves. One of my most frequent pieces of advice for those bereaved or in recovery is to 'be kind to yourself'. Self-compassion is not to be self-indulgent or narcissistic, but it is to follow the best advice that one would give to a beloved friend who found themselves in the same situation. Forgive yourself, rest, sleep, eat, don't judge so quickly, and offer yourself the hand of grace. 'Love your neighbour as yourself' is practical advice and good psychological hygiene. The practice of compassion for oneself is to rehearse compassion for those around you.

Nick Bird

Your Rector

This letter from Revd Nick Bird appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Grapevine