Compassion, Memory and Leadership

Passion:  [păsh’ən] via French, from Latin passio (“suffering”), noun of action from perfect passive participle passus (“suffered”), from deponent verb pati (“suffer”).
Compassion: [kuhDescription: http://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngm-pashuhDescription: http://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngn] latinized ad. F. compassionné, pa. pple. of compassionner to compassionate; f. Latin com- together with + pati to suffer
NOUN 1. Suffering together with another, participation in suffering.
            Joe W. Gardner writes in, No Easy Victories, “Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society. They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.”
            Just coming home from church Sunday, I found in my inbox the NYTimes.com news alert that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (deficit “Super Committee) has reached—again—an impasse. This bi-partisan small group of legislators receiving a salary (i.e., paid to do a certain job) cannot do their jobs. Representatives, elected to representthe districts who stood behind them in elections, and work with other representatives who were elected to do the same, and expected to work together to form intelligent legislation that represent the tenants of our country and for the good of all, have turned off the part of the brain that reasonable, intelligent people posses for making wise decisions—that is, compromise. How is it, that a few people making at least$175,000 per annum (the minimum salary for members of Congress, though the median personal wealth is actually $911,510) can justify the decision to say they cannot come to a decision?
            Which brings me back to passion. And, compassion. While it is true that language is fluid and the meanings of words diverge oftentimes unrecognizably from the “original” etymological sense, it is often instructive (in the least, worth bearing reflection) to revisit that first place, the primordial soul of a word. It seems especially salient as concerns compassion. As with “awesome” and “radical,” compassion has been diluted and come to indicate, instead, a slight feeling of pity toward another. Suffering is not our strong suit as human beings, and certainly not as Americans. To suffer with someone else is just not an activity that most would ever choose. We see the need of those in war-torn, poverty stricken, famine laced areas. But they are blips on a screen, images that pass on information only to make way for still more information. Our wired-for-massive-and-streamed-information, shallow-thinking brains are no longer capable of deep, thoughtful, reflective, conviction-generating meditation.
            How do we remember the past? By remember, I do not mean gathering information about historical events. How do we bring to the surface the experience—suffering, joy, sweat and tears, triumphs and the magnificent satisfaction resulting from having accomplished great things—how peoples brought us to, and made possible that which we have become, where we are now? Googling? Twitter feeds? Facebook status updates? The NYTimes.com multimedia experience? No. Listening. Hearing. Taking to heart the stories, the first-hand life experiences of those who have gone before us. Does it break your heart to hear the experience of those returning from the Middle East “to a country that doesn’t know them?”[1]They have come to find that we have been proceeding with business as usual, while having “scant idea of just how much the military has given since 9/11 beyond the vague sense that some 6,300 have died.” Iraqi war veteran, Marine Sergeant Alex Lemons, laments, “There are no bond drives. There are no tax hikes. There are no food drives or rubber drives…It’s hard not to think of my war as a bizarre camping trip that no one else went on.” The government spent a great deal of money to support these wars while not implementing any concessions for supporting the effort financially. The result is a major contribution to our current debt situation. More important, the decided majority of Americans have no reason to engage, to understand and have empathy for returning veterans (nor for those who live in those places of war).
            The foundation of the Old Testament narrative is the steady, persistent theme of remembrance. Feasts and celebrations, ceremonies and festivals were outlined in great detail and etched into the covenantal calendar of the Israelites. We are told in 2 Kings 23:22, however, that in all the years since Joshua’s preparation to enter Canaan to the time of Josiah, the Passover was never celebrated as a group. And, not again until the time of the returned exiles (Ezra 6:19). [Though 2 Chronicles 30 gives an account of Hezekiah issuing a command to observe the Passover, it was not done according to God’s prescribed schedule, nor attested in the 2 Kings account of the Hezekiah narrative.] The story that underpins the very nature of Yahweh—Savior, Rescuer, Redeemer, Protector—is not remembered with the prescribed festal gathering. Perhaps that is one reason they strayed so far from God’s grace. Perhaps this is why we have come to this spot as Americans.
            Israel’s leaders did not bring the people into the rhythm of remembrance. Our leaders neglect the same (or pervert it). The behavior of Congress this past week (representative of their behavior of late, in general) is absolutely characterized by “petty preoccupations” and has thwarted efforts at every turn to “carry [us] above the conflicts that tear a society apart.” I don’t see leaders in the church looking any differently, either. Are we praying for our leaders to lead with wisdom and discernment, to have the courage to rise above pettiness? Or, do we pray that they act according that which we subscribe politically? We need leaders who “inspire us and restore our hope,” who take responsibility and serve with integrity. [2]Who of us will step up and lead? Are we to sit back and wait to see if anyone else will fill the post, or will some of us gather the courage to be used in such a position? Gardner is right to note that to lead is no easy task. Victories are hard won. Yet, is it not worth the effort? especially when one is able to “unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts?”
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
            ~Joshua 1:9


[1]Mark Thompson, “The Other 1%”, TIME, November 21, 2011, 34.
[2]Warren Bennis. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Perseus Publishing, 2009, 5.

One thought on “Compassion, Memory and Leadership

  1. Excellent! Love the thoughts on compassion and the overuse of the word. Your thoughts make me think of Mark Yaconelli and his thoughts in Contemplative Youth Ministry about really looking and meditating on each other as a form of spiritual discipline. Good words Love!

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