The power of compassion

Charles Eisenstein, my favorite new philosopher/thinker/writer, is working on a new book and is sharing excerpts with supporters.

The following excerpt – which he expects will be part of the intro to the new book – expresses in story form a principle that is central to his thinking, and is the idea that most draws me to him. Although Charles is not ostensibly Buddhist, this central principle is very Buddhist, at least in my understanding of Buddhism. In simple words, the idea is that we must get beyond us-vs.-them thinking if we are to be effective, and this applies to activism for progressive causes as well as all the other conflicts that invade our lives.

It’s so easy to blame the ills of the world on “those guys” who have it wrong and are “evil” or “greedy” or any of the other labels that so easily fit so many of those “idiots” out there. While these things may be true in some sense, it’s not a productive way to think or to approach the problem.

What he identifies here is perhaps the essential element that needs cultivating in our society: compassion. If we are to transition into a new story, a new way of relating to our fellow humans and the world we inhabit, we must find a way back to the deep feeling of love and reverence for all life that is part of our human heritage.

Charles says:

….. I’d like to share an excerpt of the book I’m working on. It is from the beginning of the book… (It is a first draft so be gentle!)
What made you into an environmentalist? Think back over your life to an event that inspired you with care for some special part of our planet. For me it came at about the age of seven or eight, when I was outside with my father watching a large flock of starlings fly past. “That’s a big flock of birds,” I said.
My father told me then about the passenger pigeon, whose flocks once filled the skies, so vast that they stretched from horizon to horizon for days on end. “They are extinct now,” he told me. “People would just point their guns to the sky and shoot randomly, and the pigeons would fall. Now there aren’t any left.” Of course, I’d known about the dinosaurs before then, but that was the first time I really understood what the word “extinct” means. I cried in my bed that night, and many nights thereafter. That was when I still knew how to cry – a capacity that, once extinguished through the brutality of teenage boyhood in the 1980s, was nearly as hard to resuscitate as it would be to bring the passenger pigeon back to Earth. 

Species extinction did not end with the 19th century. The fate of the passenger pigeon foreshadowed the calamity that is now overtaking all life on this planet, a calamity that has left none of us untouched. I recently made the acquaintance of a farmer here in North Carolina, I’ll call him Mike, a man of the earth whose family has been here for three hundred years. His thick accent, increasingly rare in this age of mass media-induced linguistic homogenization, suggested conservative “Southern values.” Indeed, he was full of bitterness, though not against the usual racial or liberal suspects; instead he launched into a tirade about the guvmint, chemtrails, the banks, the “sheeple,” the 9-11 conspiracy, and so on. “We the people have got to rise up and smash them,” he said, but it was leaden despair, not revolutionary fervor, that colored his voice.

Tentatively, I broached the idea that the perpetrators of these crimes are themselves imprisoned in a world-story in which everything they do is necessary, right, and justified; and that we join them there when we adopt the paradigm of conquering evil through superior force. That is precisely what motivates the technologies of control, whether social, medical, material, or political, wielded by those we would overthrow. Besides, I said, if it comes down to a war to overthrow the tyrants, if it comes down to a contest of force, then we are doomed. They are the masters of war. They have the weapons: the guns, the bombs, the money, the surveillance state, the media, and the political machinery. If there is hope, there must be another way.

Perhaps this is why so many seasoned activists succumb to despair after decades of struggle. Dear reader, do you think we can beat the military-industrial-financial-agricultural-pharmaceutical-NGO-educational-political complex1 at its own game? In this book I will describe how the modern environmental movement, and most especially the climate change movement, has attempted just that, not only risking defeat but also quite often worsening the situation even in its victories. Climate change is calling us to a deeper kind of revolution, a different kind of revolution, a revolution that will be unstoppable.

Mike wasn’t understanding me. He is an intelligent man (as most farmers are), but it was as if something had possessed him; no matter what I said, he would pick up on one or two cue words to pour forth more bitterness. Obviously, I wasn’t going to “defeat the enemy” by force of intellect, enacting the very same paradigm I was critiquing. When I saw what was happening, I stopped talking and listened. I listened, not so much on a conceptual level, but to the voice beneath the words and to all that voice carried. Finally I asked him the same question I am asking you: “What made you into an environmentalist?” 

That is when the anger and bitterness gave way to grief. Mike told me about the ponds and streams and wild lands that he hunted and fished and swam and roamed in his childhood, and how every single one of them had been destroyed by development: cordoned off, no-trespassed, filled in, cut down, paved over, and built up. 

In other words, he became an environmentalist in the same way that I did, and, I am willing to guess, the same way you did. He became an environmentalist through experiences of beauty and grief. 

“Would the guys ordering the chemtrails do it, if they could feel what you are feeling now?” I asked.

“No. They wouldn’t be able to do it.” 

I think Mike’s right.

2 thoughts on “The power of compassion

  1. Tidewriter says:

    Hi John! Enjoyed this post very much, and the following comes to mind:

    “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death.” (Proverbs 14: 12)

    “Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all transgressions.” (Proverbs 10:12)

    What you’ve described above is no doubt repeated every time we fail to come to grips with what we fail to understand yet must understand: the spirit gives life, but the letter kills.


    • John Eden says:

      Thanks Cindy! I tried to respond to your comment via mobile, but I guess it didn’t take. Yes, I see the connections there. I often wonder why it is that so many Christians, especially the fundamentalist wing, sorta ignore much of what seems best in the Bible, especially in the teachings of Jesus. To me, the essential concept to morality is in that teaching about loving others as we love ourselves… I used to tell my 7th graders, you know what’s right and wrong, you don’t have to be taught that – just think about what you want and don’t want and you know what’s right to do and what’s not. But somehow, it don’t seem to work thatta way!

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