All-School Blog: Dr. Paul Barker on Compassion

On compassion

"What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years, the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the division whether it's between black and white, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or over the war in ....that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country."

Alas, this fine oratory is not drawn from today's political discourse. The missing word is "Vietnam" and the speaker, more than 50 years ago, is Robert F. Kennedy in his last speech before his assassination. A Doonesbury comic strip featured in the Washington Post two Sundays ago offered a more jaundiced view of not-so-compassionate times. The characters in the comic are unfamiliar with notions of "service" and the "common good."

In these times, Good Counsel's special emphasis on the Xaverian Brothers' core value of COMPASSION seems counter-cultural.

What exactly is compassion? In a 2003 Commencement address at Georgetown University, Dr. Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago shared what Aristotle argued long ago, that human compassion standardly requires three thoughts: 1) that a destructive or painful thing has happened to someone else; 2) that this was not (or not entirely) the person's own fault; and 3) that we recognize that we are vulnerable in similar ways.

Feelings of compassion can exhaust us. When we see the suffering of someone dealing with accident, illness, disease, death, or natural disaster, it's natural to feel care, concern, sympathy, empathy, even distress. The devastation caused by Hurricane Florence is a good recent example. When such events occur close to us, our feelings are more intense. We see how easily misfortune might have fallen on us.

We began the year by giving each student a "Compassion" bracelet. Now, halfway through the first quarter, it's good to see the bracelets, handmade by our friends from Las Delicias in El Salvador, are still being worn by many. Of course, while a bracelet may be a helpful reminder, on its own it does not make anyone more compassionate.

Our focus on compassion aims to teach our students to understand their capacity to not just feel compassion but to also act compassionately. There is no shortage of undeserved suffering in the world to help us in that task. Already this year, freshmen have participated in retreats that emphasize service to poor children in Silver Spring. A critical component of those retreats is when students, having returned to campus, spend time processing the experience. Seniors go in small groups to Our Daily Bread in Baltimore where they serve lunch to the poor of the city. Pierre-Louis Joizel, Principal of St Gabriel's in Fontaine, Haiti, spoke last week to student groups about the challenges of running a school in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. These are all opportunities for students to experience feelings of care and concern as well as come to a deeper appreciation of the fact that human life is full of difficult situations that do not have simple solutions.

I observed an especially impactful presentation just over a week ago when Mr. Michael Welch, a member of our Board of Directors, spent the morning speaking about his life at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the poorest place in America. There are many things – the harsh climate, the lack of jobs, the scourge of alcoholism, the high rate of suicide – that are challenging, even discouraging about life on the reservation. Mr. Welch offered his counter-cultural point of view, explaining to students that there's no place he would rather live.

Mr. Welch brought to life the suffering experienced in a place far from Olney, one that few of our students will ever visit. He spurred students to think about weakness and vulnerability as things we hold in common. Our Catholic faith teaches us that all human beings have equal worth. Do we really believe that? I asked Mr. Welch about school groups visiting the reservation. Are they an imposition? A burden? What was interesting was his question in response: Could we come together as equals, acknowledging we all have weaknesses, needs, fears? Anything less than equal terms would only add to feelings of exclusion, shame, and humiliation.

At Good Counsel, we are blessed to be able to facilitate contact for students with people on the margins. The good we do in our many service opportunities is undeniable. Our challenge is to help students understand that acting with compassion by "being with" typically involves a more profound commitment than "giving to" or "doing for." As Catholic educators, our job is to provide language that helps students overcome their fears, encourage the critical thinking that will help them understand what they see, and motivate them to action for justice in our world.

Suffering and marginalization are not all 30 miles away in Baltimore or 1,500 miles away in Pine Ridge, or 3,000 miles away in Las Delicias. Here at home, if we pay attention, we can be a community alert to the suffering of others: students dealing with crippling anxiety; families in financial distress; teachers struggling with care of aging parents. In the spirit of paying attention, I hope students will continue to wear their bracelet all year as a visual cue to choose the path of COMPASSION, to feel and to act for others.

Fueled by compassion, great things are possible. Our Good Counsel mission is to inspire students to excel, serve, and love. Half a century on, may our students' open eyes, ears, and hearts used in service of the common good help bring to fulfillment RFK's vision of a "great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country."