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‘Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.’

By Mardi Tindal

Gandhi is best known for non-violent civil disobedience, the approach he used to lead British-ruled India to independ-ence. He is also known for his compassion, refusing to fear the untouchables of his society.

It’s said that once, as Gandhi stood by an open door on a moving train, one of his slippers fell off and landed on the tracks. As the train travelled on, he threw down the other slipper so that whoever found them would have a matching pair. I used to think that was marvellously quick-witted. But perhaps it’s more accurately viewed as the conditioned reflex of a well-trained compassion muscle.

Canadian aid organizations report a remarkably generous response from individuals and groups who have stepped up to sponsor Syrian refugees. We represent all sectors of society: churches, synagogues, mosques, schools and businesses. On a visit to Stratford, Ont., last summer, I noticed a donation jar beside the cash register in a small café. A handwritten note invited us to pitch in to support a city-wide effort to welcome at least five Syrian refugee families. The owner bubbled about how good she and her customers felt about being part of this initiative.

It always feels good and right to rally around a common cause. We feel it in our bones — and in the healthy stretch of our compassion muscles. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve felt this way. At last year’s Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium, author John Ralston Saul argued that Upper and Lower Canada forged closer bonds on the path to nationhood through a “terrible refugee crisis.” The Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s became one of our earliest opportunities to articulate and express Canadian values.

In 1847, 110,000 sick and dying people arrived on ships in Quebec City and Montreal, many of them with typhus. Tens of thousands were sent inland. Toronto received 40,000 to 45,000 in one summer alone, double the population of the city. Citizens rallied and responded. They built hospitals, sent the newcomers to farms, fed them and averted what could have been a disaster. It was perhaps our first step toward interculturalism, as Protestants had to tame their deeply held fears of Roman Catholics, looking past differences to help their fellow human beings. This is who we can be at our best.

Since then, we’ve used our compassion muscles many times over, welcoming waves of refugees. Arif Virani, my member of Parliament, can discuss Canadian values in English, French and Hindi. He arrived as an infant refugee from Uganda in 1972 and is an internationally respected human rights lawyer.

More recently, many Europeans have been quick to embrace the wave of refugees from the Middle East. Bishop Tamás Fabiny of the Lutheran Church in Hungary has said, “Something has changed. . . . More and more people dare and manage to express their feelings
of solidarity towards refugees. Voices of disapproval and reservation seem to be less frequent and the willingness to help is getting stronger.”

Of course, the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks on Paris stoked fears. Writing in the Washington Post two days later, author Trevin Wax quoted Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who said, “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” Wax went on to write, “Fear and compassion cannot coexist. The former inevitably drives out the latter.”

How then can we be strong enough to ensure that fear doesn’t dominate? We can strengthen our compassion muscles and our communities. Refugees aren’t the only ones who will be healthier.

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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