A student once questioned the point of a compassion anthology: why draw, paint, write about compassion when you could go out and employ it directly? I spent a while pondering this. What I have discovered is that compassion is most often a predicament—something we begrudgingly choose (or choose not) to do. When we give eagerly, it’s during the holidays, because there is a bandwagon effect—everyone else is giving as well— and it makes us feel good.
I’ve had many compassion predicaments in my life, and I’m no exception. There was the elderly lady sitting on a bench outside the Stop & Shop with bags full of food who wanted a ride home; the ride she had arranged beforehand had left her stranded. I was taken aback by this proposition and perceived her as brazen, but being the softy that I am, I gave in. We loaded her groceries into the back of my Toyota Rav4, and I dropped her off at her apartment building down the road. She was especially appreciative, and although I initially felt annoyed and inconvenienced, I experienced a sudden rush of joy as I pulled away.
And then there was the woman at dusk in the Salem Commons kneeling in the dirt. I couldn’t see her clearly and mistook her for a fire hydrant until she cried out, “Can you help me? Please help.”
The woman—Mary was her name—was having a stroke; “The right side of my body is dead,” she told me when I approached her. She was seemingly petite and frail, but too heavy to carry, so I reassured her I would be her dead side and, half-holding her, continued to push her right foot forward with my left so that I could get her home. Managing her and my dog, who was exceedingly uneasy about the situation, took about a half hour: I had to alternate moving and propping Mary, then untying and moving my dog, until I found someone who could help.
As I was moving Mary, she told me about the death of her husband and of her only living relative—a nephew in Brighton— and how she was terrified of hospitals. We talked about bingo and the religious scandals in the Church. A portal opened into the life of another, and it was meaningful. My nights were typically spent alone back then, with my dog, in my apartment; helping Mary made me feel a part of the continuum of humanity.
What provoked me to act? Perhaps on some level I saw myself in the dirt, which triggered the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—a tenet put in place by the Catholic Church. But I think it was guilt that motivated me more than anything: if I didn’t help these women then how much of a jerk was I?
Our lives are simply not structured for compassion. They’re structured for sustaining the comforts we have as well as any inclination toward financial and social advancement; it’s the American way. Especially now, in a troubled economy, we have an alibi. This alibi, however, falls short in the presence of the restless human spirit seeking community and good will. We do a fantastic job of distracting ourselves from this restlessness, but it’s always lurking, waiting for us to turn off the screen.
The root of compassion originates in the meaninglessness of our lives; it begins with existential dissatisfaction, wanting something more, a spiritual need to connect with others. Compassionate works of art help us realize that need. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. conditioned his civil rights activists in non-violence, so too must we become conditioned in compassion. For a lot of us, religion accomplishes this task but art can inspire it as well, through stories, songs, and images.
On my first day back to school this past fall semester, I carried around in my mind a painting titled “Sentience” by Dawn Fisher (see Home and Art pages). It came up during my morning meditation and I recalled it several times that day as I went to teach my composition classes with an undercurrent of apprehension. Would this semester stress me out? Does what I do really matter? Am I making enough money? The image settled me because I recognized that its presence had meaning: sentience, or awareness, is the heart of my job—I dispel ignorance and inform; I bring students to a greater awareness of their own sensibilities and the ways of the world around them. I do important work. The image had dismissed any apprehension and replaced it with justification, with confidence. It inspired me.
Artists use images to express ideas and emotions, poets and writers, to heighten the meanings of texts, psychics, to communicate with the dead, religions and secular organizations to portray collective beliefs, and advertisers to persuade us to buy. What if we could tap into the subliminal power of images to inspire us to be compassionate? Would we then eagerly choose compassion in a compassion predicament?
In his New York Times article “Compassion Made Easy," David DeSteno, a social psychologist, affirms “that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves—even a relatively trivial one—the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.”
This “association” De Steno speaks of is empathy; this is what causes us to act. And the objective of most art is to connect people through a common thread of humanity—empathy.
Yet, in order for a work of art, be it a poem, a story, a song, or a play to be effective, it must be timely. It must coincide with a compassion predicament. My hope is that this first edition of The Compassion Project: An Anthology will spark empathy in its readers and viewers enough to welcome these compassion predicaments and honor them with compassionate actions, and that these actions will, as DeSteno says paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, “radiate outward and increase harmony for all.”
The works included here depict a wide range of compassionate acts from simple, random acts of kindness as in Enver Rahmanov’s “A Stranger on a Subway,” to the founding of compassionate organizations that combat global suffering, as outlined in Marina Cantacuzino’s “The Forgiveness Project” and Tam Martin Fowles “A Journey to Compassion.”
Several of our contributors utilize art in a compassionate way as part of their life’s work: Marina Cantacuzino of The Forgiveness Project uses storytelling to explore reconciliation between victims and their perpetrators; Tam Martin Fowles uses cathartic art as a means to accept and overcome adversity; our associate editor Jennifer Jean teaches poetry to sex trafficking survivors, and poet Doug Holder has led poetry groups at McLean Hospital for the past 30 years.
Finally, I hope this anthology will help me with my latest compassion predicament—one that involves the children in Sierra Leone who lost their parents and guardians to the Ebola virus. My predicament is not if I should act, but how I should act to help these kids, because all of my previous attempts have failed. The organization that supports these children is called ChildHelp Sierra Leone and the director, Kaprie Thoronka, is a selfless man who has seen his share of hardship. We’ve been communicating weekly about the Ebola crisis and the emails and pictures he sends me are heart-wrenching.
On the children’s behalf, I have decided to organize a campaign called Images of Compassion featuring poetry and art. Chosen work will be displayed here, in the anthology, and in an exhibit (I’m still ironing out the details as to where and when). We will charge an entry fee for submitters, and this will go directly to ChildHelp Sierra Leone, as will any proceeds from a silent auction (if we have one).
If you wish to make a donation now to ChildHelp Sierra Leone, you can visit their 1% Club crowdfunding site https://onepercentclub.com/en/?#!/projects/post-ebola-child-support. If you are interested in submitting to Images of Compassion, we’ll have the submission guidelines up in January, so keep checking our Facebook page and website.
I thank you for visiting our site and wish you peace, compassion, and joy in 2015.
Laurette Folk, editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology