Each year, as a family tradition, a randomly chosen family member, delivers a holiday time (either Thanksgiving or Christmas) “homily” to be read after the holiday meal. This year, to the delight of all, it was my husbands turn. Here’s what he said…
Christmas Homily 2014
Here I am, administering the homily, but I confess I am a reluctant “homilier.”
Among other impediments, there is my distrust of pontification as an agent of growth. I subscribe to the age-old notion that actions inspire louder than words. I believe that the most adherent learning occurs by example.
I am also uncomfortable interacting in groups—even groups of dearly loved ones. As I considered the reasons for that discomfort I realized that the enjoyment I derive from conversation is proportional to the likelihood of deepening my comprehension of another soul; a finely wrought connection that I seem only able to establish with one person at a time.
Finally, a creed is like an old shoe; it is deeply personal. It may be ill-fitting and unpleasant to others unaccustomed to the fit and fragrance.
In spite of my non-pontification vow, in spite of my discomfort, in spite of the mismatch between my inclinations and present circumstances, I intend to make the best of it. I will keep it short—though perhaps a little less than sweet. I will speak directly and, I hope, clearly about the creed that informs my life, minute-by-minute and day-by-day.
Without detailing my life’s circuitous byways, which would surely violate my promise of brevity, I will just say that I have always endeavored to unearth a set of clear principles that could guide my life down to the smallest granules of activity—a beacon to draw me forward in the dimmest light. I have always sought a simple, clarion key with which to harmonize my actions. I knew that such a key would need to persuade two, sometime discordant judges—heart and mind—both equally prominent in the court of my personality. And yet, over time, and in spite of these harsh judges, I have found that personal key, the notes of which reflect the following recognitions:
Suffering, in all its manifold forms, is a dominant aspect of existence. An awareness of suffering, in even its smallest manifestations, deepens our humanity. Once I was in a CVS and noticed that the cashier, a teenage girl, was afflicted with terrible acne. Certainly not life threatening, no different than many other teenage girls, but I found myself curiously moved, recalling that age, imagining her likely anguish, internalizing both the particular and figurative nature of her suffering. To me, it is self-evident that one of society’s key functions is to diminish suffering in proportion to its degree.
The most important thing that distinguishes humans (and other sapient creatures) from rocks, machinery, and the empty spaces between the stars, is not language. It is not tool-making ability or upright posture. It is not opposable thumbs. It is not even self-awareness—often considered a hallmark. The monumental thing that distinguishes us is, I believe, our impulse to care about beings apart from ourselves and to act in accordance with that impulse. Think about it. What would existence look like without caring actions? Finding you in the most heart-rending distress, why would I do anything to assist you? Why would any institution or area of endeavor evolve to mitigate suffering? From the personal to the public realm absolutely nothing we hold sacred would exist except as shallow, self-aggrandizement.
But from whence does caring action arise? Surely it is impelled by some, more elementary human particle. Upon further dissection, it seemed to me that compassion is the fundamental fuel that compels us to care—and act accordingly. This active compassion starts with our ability to project into the experience of another and continues with actions intended to reduce their suffering.
The prominent theologian, Peter Gomes, defined compassion as “kindness in the face of the opportunity to do otherwise—more than justice requires.” As he noted, compassion is the central principle that is shared by all of the major religious traditions.
There are several questions one might raise when according compassion such a prominent position in the Pantheon of virtues:
Sometime the reduction of aggregate suffering requires us to act in ways that increase short-term suffering. If I care for someone with a drug addiction, compassion may prompt me to actually add suffering in the present (by denying access to the drug) to reduce greater suffering in the future.
Some believe the compassionate impulse simply derives from evolutionary processes. Others believe, as I do, that it is something transcendent and unknowable that both informs and exceeds those processes. This is an interesting question, certainly, but, ultimately, of mostly academic interest. What matters is our recognition of compassion as a fundamental force that fuels our sacred obligation to recognize and reduce suffering.
None of this implies that other grand virtues—such as truth and courage—should not be celebrated. But if one must be reductionist (and apparently I must) it seems to me that compassion must be accorded a special position.
And while compassion is natively present in some more than others, it is also a seed within all of us that can be grown. And how do we provide the requisite care and feeding? Here are two habits that have served me well:
Humility—reality, in all its splendor and woe, even in the small corner each of us inhabits, is ineffably immense and mysterious. As individuals, we can only grasp the merest iota of our own being let alone the vast ocean of the human condition. The only appropriate response is profound humility. In 2011, David Brooks wrote with great eloquence about humility:
Humility is not equivalent to low self-esteem. Rather, the humble person has an accurate view of herself. She can acknowledge her mistakes. She has low self-focus. She is aware of her place in the grand scheme of things and is sensitive to larger and possibly higher forces. The humble person has the ability to be “unselved.” Humility is not modesty either. The modest person has a moderate view of himself, but may still think about himself all the time. Humility is better seen as the opposite of narcissism. The narcissist has a damaged sense of self and is consequently self-centered a great deal of the time, reacting in defensive ways to ego threat. The humble person has an accurate and durable sense of self and can see the relationship between the self and the larger world.
If we develop the habit of humility, we are unselved—a fertile soil in which compassion naturally grows.
Listening—when another human speaks to us earnestly and we listen well, a window begins to open. And if the lesser voices within us—judgment, ego, insecurity—are not too indulged, we have the opportunity to peer into the soul of another. It is in that majestic place that compassion, deep fellowship, and love arise.
Of course there is a great body of wisdom devoted to compassion, but no simple formulas for its cultivation (I’ve sometime fantasized about spiking the water supply with compassion inducing drugs).
At Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, one of my son’s asked an archetypal question of the assembled. “What is life’s purpose?” For me, the answer to this question begins with my belief that all people share the same three basic desires: to love, to be loved, to have meaning. Those desires are most deeply satisfied where compassion operates freely. Our underlying purpose, therefore, is to grow that capacity within ourselves.
As succinctness is rapidly slipping through my fingers, I would like to close with two quotes.
From William James:
“I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”
And, of course, from my beloved George Eliot, whose final paragraph of Middlemarch I can never resist quoting. Referring to the book’s protagonist, who lived a profound albeit provincial life, she wrote:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.