Awakening compassion, developing a shell, or becoming overwrought

October 4, 2013

I apologize for trying to stuff the whole point of this post into its title — it’s my version of writing  notes to myself.

My point of departure is actually my witnessing the hawk yesterday morning capturing its food.

I have a thing for hawks, I don’t know why.  I love them in a way I can’t explain, love their feathers, love their body shape, love their coloring, really love the way they fly, especially when I catch sight of one gliding overhead.  Cue the song lyric:  “A single hawk in God’s great sky looking down with God’s own eyes.”  That’s from Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill.”

Watching one do what it does in order to eat and sustain itself I found upsetting.  My cognitive apparatus explained why it must be accepted, my emotions felt protective of the critter in its vulnerability.

When we humans encounter the scene of humans preying on other humans, or a system developed by humans preying on other, more vulnerable humans, what do we do?  Strengthen our shell?  Collapse in hysteria?  Take the step of feeling compassion, regardless of how we can help, and also going through a process of discerning if and how we can help and following through if that’s what we are being called on to do?

I’ve had people in my life decline to take up their social roles for reasons I have never truly fathomed.  They would say, “There’s nothing I can do” when there actually was and when it was something society actually expected them to do under the circumstances.   (To me, it’s a version of the “empty promise” theme I find running through my life, which I’ve written about before.)  Some of them had taken a fall earlier in life, perhaps too early for it to awaken compassion.  Instead they seem to have been so overwhelmed by their emotions that they found ways to shut them down and wall them off subsequently.

I think it takes a certain combination, or combinations, of scenario, emotions, and access to resources with which to process the scene for such an experience to awaken compassion.  Too much intellectualizing and it supports callousness, too much emotion and there’s hysteria.  What I think it needs, in addition to some amount of intellect and some amount of emotion, in order to awaken compassion, is access to the “mountain lakes” the widow in “Reunion Hill” refers to as her source for the water in her streams that feeds her deep well.

This has been said before — Shindell inhabits his narrators in his songs seemlessly, whether they share his personal attributes or not.  (If I could remember where I read that, I would cite it or them.)  He does this when he sings “Reunion Hill,” and I think there’s a lesson in there, too.  Who we are may not be apparent from our surface attributes, some of us are pretty well-disguised.  But ultimately, I think, we are all some combination of “divine spark” and human.

So when we encounter pain and suffering, either initially or for the umpteenth time, where do we go in our mental processes, how do we respond?  Build the walls higher?  Rationalize?  Explode or implode?  I think it’s most helpful to mix together emotion, reason, and that third strand, the water from the mountain lakes that allows us to perceive the world (and universe) as it is.

And how we learn to do this is not going to be just a matter of reading the dots “in the book.”

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7 Responses to “Awakening compassion, developing a shell, or becoming overwrought”

  1. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    Aha ! Caught you with one mis-spelled word, which is very rare for you. You wrote “seemlessly” when you clearly meant “seamlessly.”

    I am just a bit astonished that you said so much yesterday and as of today, there is not a single comment ! Perhaps you are not an original thinker, but it is only people like you who can understand what an original thinker says and translate it with examples into what ordinary, non-intellectual types might then grasp if they tried.

    That is one of the functions of organized religion. Religious thinkers over centuries have developed attitudes, beliefs, and ideas which “translate” deeper concepts into a form that the ordinary believer can understand and act upon rationally. Judaism is a long-developed cultural religion, but Buddhism and Islam are largely invented religions. Mohammed knew his people needed a sound religion and so his mind put one together for them. He never claimed to be a divine being or anything more than a man. Only a “prophet” like Jesus or John the Baptist who was, though human, bearing a divine “message.”

    You must admit that Islam has shown “staying power,” so Mohammed, though he could not read or write, understood the human mind. Consider the constant reminder value of praying five times a day, no matter how terrible and dangerous one’s situation !

    Prince Gautama himself said that because the common people could not understand his philosophic doctrine, a “Mayahana” or “lesser vehicle” needed to be developed for them. This is the ritualized, socially sanctioned form of Buddhism widely practiced. There are Buddhist marriage rules and temples where people pray. Buddhists address prayers to statues of Buddha, though the man himself would have told them that miracles are impossible and prayers are vain repetitions, because the law of karma (cause and effect to us) governs all things.

    Both of these “conventionalized religions” would have had some effect upon those you mention who disregard their social duties, as would Christianity and Judaism if sincerely believed. And the force of habit is great. Many children absorb proper moral concepts, only to gradually abandon them when they see, time after time, how morality goes against personal interest. “You can’t trust anybody over thirty!” was an youth-outcry of the 1960’s, with some element of truth.

    The first time a deception is perpetrated or a corrupt purpose is quietly implemented, there may be some moral qualms. Yet as time progresses, the doing of such things becomes easier and easier. I have never met one, but I suppose that is how girls from good families sometimes drift into prostitution. They are not all “low-class types” and some have a college education.

    One concept you do not mention, but which I believe has some validity, is a “social class” concept of morality. “Class” can be defined in various ways : Family status or feudal title, money, intelligence, education, etc. There is no reason to deny that good people, in the moral sense, belong to a higher class, even if poor and uneducated.

    An even stronger case can be made that persons deficiently furnished by nature in terms of understanding and capacity for discipline will be under much stronger pressure to abandon moral norms they have been taught, and drift down to their “natural” level of moral capacity, which mostly translates into fear of some kind, such as revenge by the injured party or his family, social ostracism, or legal consequences. We never know just how many of these types surround us. But when there is widespread disaster, with breakdown of social machinery, it is astonishing how many people are found slugged and robbed, and how many houses have been broken into. This has happened several times in our country. Many of the perpetrators are from outside the affected area, deliberately going there for “opportunities.”

    What do you think about the idea of mandatory moral education, just as it is required by law every child must be taught to read and write ? Religious schools give that on their own account but public schools do not. The modern theme that it is somehow right or mature to be “nonjudgmental” interferes with the necessary mechanisms of socially taught or socially enforced morality, which cannot ever be completely individualized, but will always have an element of “legalistic strictness,” though much less so than the law itself.

    Even if it only limits the “drifting down” tendency, a public record of moral education will furnish judges with evidence that the defendant before him did at one time well know the difference between right and wrong. There was once a Jewish judge in New York who would punish Jewish criminals with especial severity because, in his view, they did as Jews “know better” than to do what they had done, and could not be excused upon grounds of moral ignorance.

    You did touch upon some other relevant ideas, such as the role of emotion in morality, but I seem to have run out of commentary for now.

  2. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    I certainly agree with you as to the role of emotion in general morality, and in its extensions, such as compassion for others and sense of social obligation. To some extent it would be possible for a maturing young person under proper guidance to achieve the right balance between inner feeling and sound judgment that proceeds from rational thought. These things are subject to social change.

    For example, it used to be that almost everyone believed hanging a murderer was the right thing to do. Murder is a crime so serious and so irreparable in its consequences that “rehabilitation” becomes almost irrelevant. We do not “rehabilitate” murderers any more than spies or traitors in time of war. Maximizing deterrence becomes the point of central attention.

    Yet public opinion has undergone considerable change in this area. Was it due to public debate and intellectual argument, or did it proceed mostly from unexplained but subtle shifts in sentiment ? This can be hard to judge.

    “Psychopathic” and “sociopathic” are loosely and often inaccurately used terms. A genuine psychopath is fundamentally and genetically deficient in ability to develop the conditioning that will lead to a sense of guilt or wrongdoing, which is an emotional state. Some of them are of superior intelligence, and by being “present-oriented,” adjust well to prison. There is no known effective method of therapy or treatment, as the psychopathic condition seems to be “deeply a part” of the person.

    So there are built-in limits as to how far each person can balance the emotional and intellectual components of his or her character and world-view. Objective and scientific study of “how-to” methods, and the psychology of morality generally, is a rather neglected area of academic research.

    POSTSCRIPT : I read all the comments on the Douthat article expressing doubt about Pope Francis, and did not see one by you, though you name was mentioned by another posting a comment.

    Of course you cannot repost a NYT artice without their permission, but I think you are free to post your own such comments somewhere, identifying what they refer to.

  3. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    The comments are numbered. No. 1 is by “slavicdeva,” 2 by “unreceivedogma,” 3 by “dillard” of Grand Junction, Colorado, 4 by “Steve” of New York.

    I had thought these 266 comments were all that came in before comment was closed. Is there another group ?

    First comment is October 6 at 3:04 p.m.

  4. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    Found your comments at last !

    I thought Douthat made many meaningful points. It really is true that ‘liberaized religion” tends to fade away — so much so that it might reasonably be perceived as a “beginning stage” of dissolution.

    Years ago, Catholic commentators would say that “religious liberalism” has turned many Protestant churches into mere social agencies, which was not a fallacious or irrelevant criticism. Remember that organized religion is a social entity that must persist over generations, which means there must be mass adherence and not merely personal belief by persons like yourself. Persisting mass adherence seems to require certain elements not clearly understood.

    I am surprised at the focus upon mere passing comments, like “ancient heresies re-invented as self-help.” I am sure he could have explained that point had he realized so many would notice it.

    In official Catholic nomenclature, “heresy” is not unbelief but a fallacious or mistaken interpretation of Christianity. The history of heresy is obscure, and many doctrines condemned before the year 500 come to us unclearly only through those who attacked them. The Arian heresy was considered the first “great threat” to the Catholic Church, yet what was its main element ? Arius insisted that there must have been a time when “Jesus was not,” or did not exist. He was merely asserting that Jesus was a created being, not part of a godhead existing as such from all time. This denied the trinity yet is fully consistent with what Jesus said about himself. He never claimed divine status but referred to himself as “the son of man.” He prayed as did others. Yet Arius’ view was bitterly denounced and his churches suppressed.

    Another strange and illogical case was the Nestorian heresy. Nestorius objected to referring to Mary as “mother of God,” saying that inasmuch as God was eternal, he did not need and could not have had a mother. Perfectly logical, but the politics of public opinion overruled logic. You might remember when “Hail Mary” on Catholic radio was, “Hail Mary, mother of God,” but that has now been changed to “mother of grace.”

    Back then, heretics were not burnt or imprisoned but cast out to the limits of the Roman Empire, to do such religious work as they could. Nestorius and his followers went to China, where they met with some success in making converts. All that remains of his effort is a monument with some inscriptions.

    The point is that heresy often involves both the politics of the day and rather subtle and elusive theological questions, as one who responded to you mentioned. Douthat was probably not referring to specific heretical doctrines with conventional names, but elements of these.

    Sometimes elusive heresies are not condemned as such when first propagated, but only after a time. The last one actively suppressed was in nineteenth-century France. The Holy Inquisition had no “police power” then, but was still very active, and faithful catholics submitted voluntarily to judgment.

    • Diana Moses Says:

      Maybe it’s not a bad thing for religions to come and go. I don’t see how longevity should be the measure. In my opinion, most of them include unhelpful or even damaging misunderstandings. So why not let them evolve as they will?


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