The Revolution of Compassion and Other Impossible Feats

Visiting my parents this weekend, I was greeted by a black lab who couldn’t contain her joy, Mom’s cooking, and a pile of junk mail from the various progressive organizations that will continue to have my childhood address on file until I retire. Eyes half open after the late night four hour drive from New York to the Cape, I flipped through the envelopes from NOW and Ms. Magazine and the Sierra Club. There was a small promotional booklet from The Sun, a magazine to which I had once subscribed with the best of intentions (I think there is a small unread stack in a closet somewhere).

The first thing I read was an excerpt of an interview with a fellow by the last name of Edwards in which he said:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people. […] Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”

As I said, I was exhausted and we had been listening to campaign coverage for most of the ride. I got into bed wondering why I never realized that John Edwards was such an amazing person, not just some guy who seemed to mention being the son of a mill worker more often than was necessarily interesting or sincere. The next morning, I was ready to read my mother this quote and tell her that we must have really missed something when it came to this man’s campaign. I was ready to bemoan the fact our country was just too taken with special interests and big money politics. I was ready to think that “Yes we can!” was an empty slogan compared to someone who talked about finding freedom through renouncing greed.

Before I started a rumor that virtue was still valued over power somewhere on the national scene, I realized this interview was with a guy named David Edwards. The passage was from a June 2000 interview with a British writer who had walked away from his corporate destiny and began to dedicate himself to “spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions.” Please do check out the piece – I think he just blew my mind a little, but it will take a a little time to let those ideas (all of which I had probably heard before) fall into the shape of an epiphany.

Am I suffering the pangs of cruel disillusionment when I realize that the words above really probably could not come from the mouth of an individual as firmly entrenched in the political machine as an American presidential candidate? Does it just figure that something I found so simple, true, and insightful comes from a man thought mad because he gave up so many of the accustomed Western privileges and luxuries? Am I saddened that countless people whom I love would shake their heads at my quaint, bleeding heart liberal, idealism should I bring one of his books along on vacation?

It is just becoming alarmingly clear that the sort of vision that appeals to me, that seems the only correct, possible way to be a human being in the 21st century is neither easy nor popular. It scares me to realize that I might be ready to accept that challenge. Almost as much as it scares me that I will not.

Upon Hearing a Conversation Spiced with Hope

It’s funny how shreds of the past come to mind in a new light now that I am allowing myself to recognize the central place the question of planet’s future has in my life. On Saturday while I was making dinner I listened to a Speaking of Faith episode called “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” At the time, I gave it as much mind as I could as I tried to wrap my head around making spaghetti alla carbonara (both because it was one of my husband’s favorite dishes and I wanted to make it perfect, and because I was frying pork and readying myself to eat it – me, vegetarian who??).

The person whose accomplishments and experiences stick with me now is Majora Carter, a native of the of the South Bronx who returned to her neighborhood after studying art in college and, to her own surprise, ended up taking on the environmental issues that detracted the lifestyle of all those who lived in her part of the city. How could I have listened to this story just a few days ago and been largely unmoved? How could I be filled with anything other than stop-in-the-middle-of-the-kitchen-with-my-jaw-open awe when I heard about this unlikely shifter and creator of local culture and landscape? Now that I am staring at this problem as vast as the atmosphere of the earth and all of the oceans combined, I am desperate to find proof that we can make some of difference. It seems that I have more shining examples than I have the ability to recognize. I just may be time to open my ears and eyes wider so I can recognize the radiant hope that humanity still has the power to generate.

Check it out at: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/discoveringwherewelive/index.shtml

A Reader’s Treasury of Misfortune

Recently I have noticed that my capacity for violence and ugliness in “entertainment” has diminished sharply. A girl who barely flinched when she saw Braveheart in the theater now cannot stay in the room during Pan’s Labyrinth and can barely make it through many of the movie trailers shown during prime time. A distaste for blood and gore isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, but it seems strange when a student of literature finds the typical tragedies of modern prose increasingly unbearable.

Last month I read a novel I wouldn’t usually pick up – Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys – and last night I read an article that I wouldn’t usually come across – “The Man Who Got Away (Thank Goodness!)” by Amy Dickinson. These two pieces have several things in common: both had been acquired in airports; the novel is an “Oprah book” and the article is in this month’s O magazine; both stories are about heartbreak and disintegrating families in upstate New York; and both left me wondering.

What is it about Oprah and airports? It seems that people like me who generally curse glossy magazines with their cover stories about “effortless” exercise plans can reconcile the “guilty” pleasure because the incitement to “Live Your Best Life” is a little less damning than the pointy hips and pouty lips splashed over Cosmo. But is there something about her brand of media that particularly appeals to people in transition? I mean that both in terms of time zones and personal growth. I’m a little hesitant to comment on the whole Oprah industry because I worry about the commodification of quick and easy life changes, but at the same time really respect the way that she has made the spirit a part of public discourse that seems truly inclusive (if consumer driven).

But really, it was not one woman’s empire that concerned me, but the tension I felt between these two narratives. I read most of Oates’s book in one day and in that process recalled why I haven’t read anything by her in years. The novel was like passing a one hundred mile highway pile-up at a snail’s pace except that the tragedies contained within those pages were not the fiery type from which you can distance yourself due to the unimaginable scale of it all. The series of misfortunes in this book were cramped and familial and ridiculous, but compelling and almost believable because human nature can be so tender and fragile and bizarre. Basically it is about the perfect family that falls apart in the aftermath of the only daughter’s rape: the father disowns her, the parents’ marriage dissolves, the brothers plan the perpetrator’s murder.

Dickinson’s article describes her father who walked out on her family and their farm. As the title indicates, she believes it was all for the best and that the rest of the family excelled in his absence; she sees her father’s life as a pitiful cautionary tale. It all seemed a little too pat and moral, but then it cannot be easy to give a complete portrait of one’s father in a few thousand magazine words. What struck me was that even without the salacious elements that are the signature of an Oates novel, there is more than enough drama in this world and there are more than enough readers who want to hear all about it.

I write about all this because I still cannot decide what I think about the validity of the comparison I am attempting to draw. In some ways, Dickinson’s article almost excused Oates’s book for me; it was fictional license that made the pain drag through 400+ pages and hang upon rape and murder, but there might have been a flash of real life at the core that gives the book validity. I am also left to wonder whether The Mulvaneys was really lacking something or whether, as the reader, I was either suffering from compassion fatigue or just a refusal to accept that much misfortune.

Is my withdrawal from what constitutes popular culture with its celebratory brutality and its focus on dissolution a sign of my increasing sensitivity, or a refusal to engage with reality, or the sign of a charmed existence that grants me distance from what I consider unsavory? Where is that line between glorifying suffering and elucidating it so that it can be met with compassion beyond the screen or the page? Is it really as pervasive as I seem to think right now and how on earth do we benefit and grow from this public cult of pain?