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Unpacking compassion

By Trisha Elliott

It’s really difficult to advocate for turtles. I didn’t realize that until this past Earth Day Sunday when I invited Cheryl Doran, a Sunday school teacher in my congregation, to speak during our worship service. Doran talked about endangered turtles and how she is trying to protect a portion of wetlands in Ottawa from being developed. The city, she says, won’t halt the development because there is no proof that endangered turtles are living there. Her photographs aren’t accepted as evidence because she takes them “while trespassing.” Doran estimates she has attended 30 city council meetings; she can’t remember how many letters she has written. “I collect turtles that have been hit by vehicles and lay them out on the dining table to photograph them as proof that the species is there. If it’s really late and I’m exhausted, sometimes they stay there till morning. Once, the kids were up eating breakfast with all these turtles in the middle of the table. . . . My family is very patient,” she laughs. “But seriously, there is right and wrong, and what is happening here is wrong.”

Almost all of us have a set of ethics that informs our sense of right and wrong, whether we are talking about turtles or babies, wetlands or test tubes. Ethics draw the moral map of our lives. But where does the ink come from? How does someone like Doran — or anyone for that matter — go from having moral convictions about something to committing her life to it?

The 2012 Observer survey inquires how respondents arrived at their ethical responses to difficult life and death issues. The survey questions reflect a variety of philosophical principles: the “supernaturalistic” view that ethics come straight from God; the “consequentialist” one, which advocates the greatest good for the greatest number of people; the “nonconsequentialist” perspective, which says that certain acts are right or wrong in themselves regardless of consequences. The questions posed in the survey encompass rule-based principles like the familiar “do unto others,” and result-based ones like the “rational analysis of each situation.” The survey also probes a host of other ethical shapers like upbringing and cultural standards.

The results? Observer readers are less absolutist, less rule-driven and more motivated by compassion than the general population. While readers and the public were equally inclined to take a rational approach to arriving at ethical positions, readers’ desire to be compassionate was off the charts.

But readers who attend United Church services regularly and are well educated aren’t as likely to chalk their ethics up to traditional religious motivations. In fact, the survey says that United Church-attending readers are less inclined to adopt a position “because the Bible tells me so” than non-churchgoing respondents. Virtuosity isn’t much of a dangling ethical carrot either. Non-churchgoing respondents report a greater desire to be virtuous. More than scripture, virtuosity and following the example of Jesus, United Church members say they are driven by a desire to be compassionate.

This is what got me thinking about Doran and her turtles. Many of us have helped a turtle or two cross the road, but very few of us take their lives into our hands. When I ask Doran what compels her to care, she describes cradling a turtle in her palm and being struck by its vulnerability. “The whole time I held it, it was too scared to poke its head out.” As Doran speaks, she mentions the word “compassion” twice. Clearly, like Observer readers, she is motivated by a sense of compassion. 

Of course, compassion has to come from somewhere. So when I inquire about her compassion, she talks about coming to church and being inspired by something she hears in scripture or in a sermon. This raises the question: If we dug deeper into the roots of readers’ desires to be compassionate, would we find ourselves sinking into the soil of religion? Would an understanding of scripture, the example of Jesus and the values expressed and wrestled with in the faith community crop up? Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part; my desire to believe that what I do each Sunday in the pulpit makes a difference in the ethical choices made by people of faith.

Still, I’m skeptical that these survey results lead to the conclusion that readers are more compassionate than religious. 

The cynical part of me muses that readers are more likely to tie their ethical perspective to a desire to be compassionate because the term itself is popular. While we rarely hear the word “virtuous” bandied about, “compassion” reverberates from all corners of the spiritual landscape, from Swami Dayananda Saraswati to the Dalai Lama. It’s an accepted and palatable catch-all. The word “compassion” neatly ties up what the scriptures and the stories of Jesus teach, too. It’s convenient.

Taking the desire to be compassionate at face value, though, I wonder what readers mean when they say it. Do they mean it in the way that the mystical Christian thinker Thomas Merton describes as “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things”? Or do they mean it in a more action-based kind of way, as in theologian Matthew Fox’s definition: “Compassion is not sentiment but is making justice and doing works of mercy. Compassion is not a moral commandment but a flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies”?

I listen carefully as Doran describes how a mother turtle fills her body with urine and walks for hours “holding it in” so that she can cover her eggs with it. “As a mother, I have great empathy for how difficult that must be and how committed the mother turtles are,” she says, her identity folding into the turtles’ own. 

Some thinkers say that compassion is the ability to totally identify with suffering, to step out of self and into another’s shoes or shell, as it were. Compassion “is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize that I’m not separate from this suffering,” says Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax.“Compassion means that we aspire to transform suffering.”

Does the desire to be compassionate begin with a willingness to identify with suffering? Is this the definition of compassion that informs readers’ ethical perspectives on life and death issues? Are our ethics shapers static, or does the kaleidoscope of motivators shift with each new issue? How does God factor in?

Doran has been threatened with trespassing charges four times. She has no intention of relenting. Divine instigation is in the air. A few weeks ago, she was out cleaning garbage off the road for the turtles. A stranger came up to her and asked for help. “They told me that they couldn’t move their car because there was a turtle under it. They didn’t even know me.” Her eyes well up. “I thought that the species was dead. That’s when I realized that it was alive. I took it as a sign from God to keep going.”  

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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