Last night, I gave a talk at an All Ears event on my personal journey with compassion. Seven years ago, even three years ago, I never really thought about compassion – or at least not with that word. Despite working for the last fifteen years in social change, human rights and equal opportunities, ‘compassion’ has not been a word much used in my vocabulary – neither by friends nor by colleagues. A reference that stands out in my mind is David Cameron’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ which I associate with his ‘hug a hoody’ comment in 2006. When I think of compassion in that context, it makes me think it refers to middle and upper class people having pity for ‘poor’ and ‘disadvantaged’ people. As the story of my personal journey illustrates, I now believe that compassion is not about ‘pity’, but is about human connection, understanding, forgiveness, non-judgment. Compassion, if not synonymous with, is at least an essential element of love or loving-kindess. I concluded my talk by saying that I’ve spent the last year or so integrating compassion into my work. This means I try to embed it into how I interact with people and address social change. And now, today, I’ve been wondering: “What gifts can compassion bring to us when we are engaging with social challenge, change and collaboration?”
As the speakers (Fight for Peace) who followed me last night affirmed, one quality compassion brings is a particular lens through which to see people. Conventionally, policymakers and perhaps society more widely tend to see low-income communities through a lens of lack and deficiency. We are repeatedly shown images of violence and told about lack of education, lack of ‘family values’, lack of social responsibility. Infrequently, do we hear the stories of people abundant with love, creativity, strength, and wisdom doing the best they can in the circumstances that surround them – often sadly constrained by the attitudes of others, structural barriers, and sometimes their own narrow sense of self-worth. Compassion guides us to see everyone for their worth, not their lack. A compassionate assumption is: every single human being has worth, value and a positive contribution to make to those around them. Compassion also guides us to see our selves and others through a lens of kindness and understanding. Every single human being is vulnerable to doubt, making mistakes, getting lost, becoming confused. Yet, we sometimes find it hard to accept and forgive human frailty.
Too many of us connect with our selves and others through stories of blame, guilt, regret, criticism, and judgment. Such stories usually guide us to move through the world with anger, frustration, resentment, sadness, low self-esteem, low confidence, a sense of isolation and distrust of one another. Compassion has the power to unleash us from these stories. Guided by compassion we are more able and more likely to ask: ‘What are our dreams, what do we value in ourselves and how can we work together so that we can all shine?”
Some questions about compassion alive for me today are:
“What does it look like when we formulate social policy and create public services based on belief in the worth and value of every human being and recognising that everyone has a gift to share?”
“How do we grow more leaders who nurture compassionate human connection and sow seeds for creativity and collaboration?”
“What happens if we address challenging social issues, e.g., workplace discrimination, using the lens of compassion? How would our conversations and collaborative efforts differ from what we often experience when trying to be changemakers?”