The Empire of Everybody

Marc Ian Barasch | dragonflymedia

Compassion as a Wave of Change

I’ve spent the past few years researching a book on the compassionate heart. I began what I called my “field notes” feeling both hopeful and hollowed-out. In a time of war, the ice caps melting like Sno-Cones, and meanness an item on the national agenda, I had set forth, as the poet Derek Wolcott once urged, “to fall in love with the world in spite of history.”

My journey took me to a man who had forgiven his daughter’s murderer; and to one who had given his kidney to a total stranger. I chatted (via pictograms) with oddly empathic bonobo apes. I hung out with Balkan kids who called themselves “the Post-Pessimists” — survivors of war who’d made peacemaking the whole point of their lives. I met Tibetan monks and neuroscientists studying the inner workings of the soul, and spent time with those who did the heart’s heavy lifting, succoring the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the abandoned.

Spiritual teachers have always claimed that compassion is not a case of being born a saint, but of cultivating — like diligent, sweat-stained gardeners — the secret kernel of benevolence that is our birthright.

This is not to say compassion doesn’t take some grit. It can draw us to places where the candle gutters in the soul’s darker, draftier labyrinths. The word itself derives from the Latin cum patior, “to suffer with” (think Mother Theresa: “Ache, ache, ache: one by one by one”). It might sound like a bummer but it’s what we’re made for — for that fellow-feeling that renders kindness not only possible, but ineluctable; for the joy of knowing each other deeply, as we really are. Our limbic system, the emotional brain we share with all mammals, is a powerful antenna, attuned to each others’ wavelengths. When we say, “My heart went out to him,” we’re saying we can’t help but resonate, even when we try not to notice.

A Tale of Deliverance

I’ve known my friend Kate for decades. Now 50, her rangy six-foot frame is still topped by a mane of auburn. When I first met her, Kate was an activist with a wild streak and a big heart. She’d fronted her own bar band, become a registered nurse and a midwife, gone to work for Sting, and co-founded a natural shampoo company. She eventually drifted into public relations, becoming a consultant-for-hire — a semi-retired bodhisattva in a glittery, jittery life funded by what she called, in a Seussical singsong, Boring assignments/For corporate clients.

It wasn’t even Christmas yet, but she was already sick of the season, with its synthetic cheer, slushy streets, and eggnog gossip sprinkled with leftover election gripes. Then the Great Tsunami tore a chunk out of Southeast Asia.

At first horrified, then numbed by the images of suffering that coursed at light speed around the globe, Kate was struck by a message that popped up on her friend Steve’s computer screen: “Why aren’t you on a plane to Thailand with a pocketful of cash, helping some small village recover?”

Steve, a successful businessman, also had been pierced by the images on CNN, but couldn’t bring himself to ship off a wad of his cash to some bureaucratic charity. An investment analyst and a wizard of arbitrage in a world where swarms of darting numbers demand risky split-second decisions, Steve was flummoxed. But, finally, he concluded: “The only way to see if I could make a difference was to be there on the ground.”

A few days later, they were on a plane, with Kate and Steve still asking: “Who are we to do this? How can we possibly help? Will we be in the way?” Twenty-four hours later, they alighted in Bangkok.

They wanted to get to Phuket, the tourist island whose beachfront was the tsunami’s Ground Zero. But when they arrived, they were told that the relief efforts were finished; the only work left was identifying the dead.

Kate sat down with Steve, the metaphysical agnostic, and composed a plea to the universe: “Lead us to a place where we can relieve suffering and bring hope.” She dropped off to sleep muttering it like a mantra. The next day, a man at the American Embassy appeared and directed them to a hotel 90 miles north. Arriving by rattletrap Jeep at a hilltop resort packed with relief workers, soldiers and missionaries, they entered a surreal world — inside, a luxurious tropical swimming lagoon; outside, a devastated flatland littered with miles of rubble and hundreds of white caskets where entire coastal communities once stood.

Two missionaries they met in the lobby invited them to help haul supplies to a devastated fishing village. The next day, at an encampment of plastic tarps housing 76 displaced families, they learned the group had lost more than 40 family members. Though the circumstances of these survivors couldn’t have been more dire, Kate was struck by “how incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming they were.”

The village leaders explained that they needed help rebuilding their fishing fleet. By the next day, Steve had pledged the money and Kate applied her organizational chutzpah to start a foundation to build a new flotilla of traditional long-tail boats. Within hours, Steve and Kate were in a nearby town, buying saws, drills and lumber. Later, at the site of a newly donated boatyard, they handed over the tools and equipment to the fishermen, bowing ceremoniously in the Thai manner to seal the deal. Fortuitously, the improbable debut of the Waves of Hope Boat Building Project was captured by a TV news crew. The next day the whole global village heard the story.

“Boat-building turns out to be more ‘win-win’ than I could imagine,” Kate says. “It gives people food, employment, self-reliance, dignity, hope.” Back in the States a few weeks later, she got a call from the new shipyard. In the background she could hear the “amazing, sweet music” of crews hammering in the nails on their second craft. The project may be replicated in other villages in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The whole experience left Kate thinking about chance and design, accident and fate. She’s convinced, no matter if it sounds like mystical gobbledygook, that “setting a clear intention to serve the highest good — and empowering that through our minds and hearts — made it so.” She’s considering giving up her consulting jobs to follow “this thread of service.” She finally feels plugged back into something she’d forsaken a dozen years before, when she’d “traded away inspiration and passion to pursue houses and things.”

The High Road to ‘Elevation’

Kate’s journey was less one of self-discovery than other-discovery, our real terra incognita. Father Thomas Keating, a Benedictine monk, once observed: “The American way is to first feel good about yourself, then feel good about others. But spiritual traditions say it’s really the other way around — that you develop a sense of goodness by giving of yourself.”

It’s sometimes hard to figure out what good we can do for a world that often looks like it’s coming apart at the seams. But that cynicism is a slur, a cheap shot, on our own true nature. Our smaller selves may not know how to proceed; our larger, wider selves do. Every time we see an act of nobility, our hearts swell with the sheer certainty of it.

That very feeling has caught the interest of mind-body researchers like John Haidt of the University of Virginia, who has been investigating what he calls “elevation” — that state of soaring inspiration (sometimes accompanied by a poignant, choked-up sensation) we feel when we see a particularly selfless deed. In this near-automatic, evolved response, he thinks he might have found a key to positive social change.

“Elevation seems particularly capable of fostering love, admiration, and a desire for closer affiliation,” Haidt told me. He has written: “If elevation increases the likelihood that a witness to good deeds will soon become a doer of good deeds, [it] sets up the possibility for an ‘upward spiral’… raising the level of compassion, love, and harmony in an entire society.”

Now, more than ever, we need such a fine-mesh web of kindness to bind us together. On an interconnected globe, the good of each is tied to the good of all. Every border is porous; anyone’s business is everyone’s business; a problem “over there” becomes, in an eye blink, a problem over here. What’s in any one person’s heart right now can be as big as the whole world. A few people with desktop computers can collaborate between continents on the blueprints for a new concert hall or the specs for a suitcase nuke. Or, a few people like Kate and Steve can revive entire communities of boat builders, halfway around the planet.

The Empire of Compassion

I know a young woman, Nadja, who during the siege of Sarajevo was wounded by Serb shrapnel. After the war, watching a scared-looking Serb soldier weep during his televised trial, she couldn’t help weeping with him. When her brother angrily scolded that the man could be the same one who’d lobbed the mortar round that wounded her, she replied: “I can’t keep a separate heart, one for my friends and one for my enemies.” Yet Nadja’s no pushover. She went on to become an effective global campaigner against child slavery and the abuse of women.

She echoed a Burmese activist I know named Ka Hsaw Wa, c0-founder of Earthrights International, who confided that he feels ko gin ser (roughly translated: “My heart is trying to be your heart”) for the government soldiers once tortured him. He chose to oppose them with the nonviolent weapon of international law. His group won a settlement from Unocal, a California oil giant accused of complicity in brutalizing local villagers to build a pipeline. “We have to stand against what’s wrong,” says Ka Hsaw Wa, “But I know we have to change the human heart.”

I like to think of Kate, Steve, Nadja and Ka Hsaw Wa as loyal subjects of some rising Empire of Everybody, an emergent world order with compassion as its central organizing principle. Why not believe that a culture based on “social healing” is germinating within the husk of the old — an evolutionary leap made up of small changes of heart that will burst forth, like the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution and the Ukranians’ Orange one and gently take over the world?

I’ve been inspired lately by Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt March. When the British government in India imposed a salt monopoly, making that necessity nearly unaffordable, there was widespread despair and a call to arms. But the Mahatma had a better idea. He led a mass procession down to the seashore, picked up some of the ocean’s bountiful white condensate, and held aloft a handful for all to see. The roar of the crowd that day shook the foundations of the British Imperium. People suddenly knew they had the resources to reclaim their lives and remake their society. They could withdraw consensus from an irrational system, unhobble their creativity and, in Gandhi’s words, “be the change you want to see.”

A lot of us are trying to do that today — to live holistically, to be smart, green consumers, to support the causes we believe in. But if we really want to heal our world, we need more than topical remedies. If war is an infection in the human system, the antidote lies in strengthening what it most directly attacks: our capacity for compassion. Knowing how to properly “value” Nature may not be enough; we may need to love it as well (either that, or start looking for a new evolutionary niche). And love, as everyone knows, is less about grand gestures than daily increments.

If we each all simply took less, gave more, tithed our time and energy, invested our love and our imagination — can we even imagine: “What then?” Loving-kindness sounds gentle, but it’s deeply unruly: it won’t stay in its seat, refuses to follow instructions, doesn’t know when enough is enough.

I’ve concluded — like any unjaundiced observer throughout the sweep of history — that compassion, empathy, altruism and forgiveness are the most powerful forces in the known universe. As St. Paul said, love is all that endures when everything else crumbles. In our beautiful, imperiled world, it is the only way to imagine an infinite future.

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