The Language of Compassion
Allison Rivers Samson
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
A reflection delivered June 21, 2020
When most folx consider compassion, the first thought is extending it to other people. However, there are often limits to whom we offer that compassion. For example, it can be easier to feel toward children; people who experience crime, tragedy, illness; or those who might be considered “victims.”
Oftentimes, we’re more compassionate to those who are like us, shutting out those we see as “other.”
Radical welcoming is one of our Unitarian Universalist spiritual practices. One of the ways we express this is by honoring someone’s preferred pronoun. We set ourselves free of the binary of she or he. And thankfully, society is catching up and moving past the mandate against using they as a pronoun for a single person.
What about when we refer to non-humans? The most common pronoun is “it” when speaking of a spider, ant, or even a dog. It creates a distance, a separation. It goes against our UU 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
As I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, I learned about the grammar of animacy. Animacy is a way of respecting non-human beings by expressing that they have a spirit, are alive, and sentient. The grammar of animacy would never use the pronoun “it” to describe a living being, just as in English, we wouldn’t use “it” when speaking about a human.
The author gives the example of seeing your grandmother in the kitchen and saying “It is making soup.” Sounds strange, right? This is because it goes against our fundamental sense of respect and reduces a person to a thing—someone to something.
As a personal practice, I’ve long been using the language of someone, not something, and saying them instead of it in reference to non-human animals. I had no idea I’d been speaking the language of animacy!
Dr Kimmerer sums this up, “The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a human.”
Every genocide begins with dehumanizing language. Once we move someone outside of what we believe is humanity, it becomes possible to do anything to them.
That’s not the only way that our language can lead to annihilation. Years ago, I learned that our communication is unnecessarily embedded with violence.
Has anyone ever said to you, “I need to be brutally honest.” Why add brutality, when honesty will do? Other common phrases are killing time when there’s space in our schedules, bite the bullet when we’re being courageous, and shoot from the hip when someone is being direct.
These expressions are so normalized that their aggressiveness might be easy to miss.
And just listen to the sayings we use that include non-human animals: kill two birds with one stone, more than one way to skin a cat, and don’t beat a dead horse.
Why such violence when we could feed two birds with one scone, use more than one way to peel a potato, and know that there’s no need to feed a fed horse?
Is it possible that cruel language hinders our compassion and shuts down parts of our souls?
In his book, Helium, Spoken Word Poet Rudy Francisco writes of being asked to kill a spider in a poem titled, Mercy. Recognizing that the spider is simply living their life without being a bother, Rudy instead chooses a cup and a napkin to relocate and free the spider. He says that if ever he is found in the wrong place at the wrong time just being alive, his hope is to be met with the same kind of mercy.
Not a casual hope for a Black man in this country.
Although I consistently relocate spiders, my compassion can get sloppy when it comes to mosquitos. And sometimes I’m too hasty to treat ants with the mercy I would like to receive myself. When I don’t take the time to act with care, I feel guilty. It comes at a great cost to my integrity when I override my natural states of empathy and compassion.
Seeing someone not something is a way to look with the eyes of compassion.
Our capacity isn’t limited. The more we learn, open ourselves to the hard things, and empathize, the more our compassion can grow.
Using the language of animacy can help us be more inclusive.
By changing the way we think and speak, we can change the way we live and act.
Sources cited, referenced, consulted…
Mercy by Rudy Francisco iamrudyfrancisco.com
Compassion at the Edge
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
A reflection delivered June 21, 2020
Poet Marge Piercy, writing of oppression and solidarity and unity, concludes her poem “The Low Road” by writing:
It starts when you say we
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
That is the call that comes with cultivating compassion: Saying “we,” knowing who you mean, and each day meaning one more. It is the call of the compassionate side of every life-enhancing religious tradition, including our Unitarian Universalist tradition, which asks that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or, as some have already expanded it, the inherent worth and dignity of every being.
The Vertical and the Horizontal
Religion is sometimes framed as having both a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension.
The vertical dimension of religion is the transcendent dimension – which has do to with one’s sense of connection and relationship to what is ultimately beyond us – to God, to Spirit, to life itself, to evolution, to the unfolding universe, to random chance.
The horizontal dimension of religion has to do with our relationship to each other, to humanity, to other animals, to the world, on this concrete, interactive, plane.
Cultivating compassion extends the range of our care and concern, our sense of who we really mean by “we,” on the horizontal dimension. It is anchored in and inspired by our transcendent sense of the nature of the world and existence, but it manifests and plays out in the widening circles of whose well-being we care about, on this horizontal – currently COVID-19 graced – plane, where our compassion is as our compassion does.
The Changing Edges of our Compassion
Those of us who have been around for a while have had chance to extend our circle of care and compassion, and so we know that the boundaries are not fixed, and that how far our compassion extends is up to us. We have had chances to learn of other persons’ and other cultures’ edges in ways that ask us to question our own arbitrary limits.
I appreciate the story Hey, Little Ant, that Lindsay read earlier, and I appreciate Allison’s sharing with us at other times her own ethical framework for her eating decisions. Our relationships to insects and eating are two great places to start.
I confess have killed many insects in my lifetime, because they were bothersome, or worrisome, or dangerous or painful. Though I still rarely have immediate qualms about swatting a mosquito, I do keep a plastic cup and a stiff piece of cardstock on hand to sequester and carry and liberate most critters that find their way into my apartment.
Then I think of Jainism, of the most ancient religious traditions, which teaches that the highest religious duty, without which a religion is useless they say, is not to kill or harm any being, any life, such that not only are Jains vegetarian, but the most devoted Jains sweep the path in front of them as they walk, lest they unknowingly step on an ant or any form of life, and some wear a cloth over their nose and mouth, not to prevent the spread of a virus, but to prevent the possibility of accidentally inhaling or ingesting a gnat.
A contemporary Jain nun living in London explained that she was obligated to eat every bit of food she was given, because if any of the food were thrown into the garbage, microorganisms would grow on the food, and then those microorganisms would die in the trash bin.
I know, that sounds extreme – or at least like way too much work and bother – to many of us, but it points out that the edges of human compassion are not universal and that the range is wide.
I remember being challenged years ago when I first learned that some people in some places eat dogs and cats and insects. I remember photograph in a National Geographic magazine of a giant walking stick, a walking stick almost 2 feet long, and on a leash. The young man in the photo was raising to become a meal. I was shocked and disgusted. And that kind of encounter asked me to ask myself why? Why not eat dogs and cats and horses and rats and walking sticks if one is going to eat cows and pigs chickens and escargot snails and horse-hoof gelatin. Who draws the lines?
The lines are not universal, as I had assumed when I was young. They are shaped by the norms of our families and our communities, by our religious traditions and by our own experience. So the question is where do I draw the lines of my care and concern? What are the front and growing edges of my compassion?
Black Lives Mattering
You don’t have to move very far at all, to get from those questions to the Black Lives Matter moment that’s on fire right now. Who do we mean when we say “we.” A national legacy of enslaving other human beings and centuries of continuing enculturation work against those of us who are white people learning to include black persons in our meaning of we. Built into our governance, our politics, our economics, our stories, and our many systems, are associations of fear and disgust, danger and illness with black persons and other non-white persons. It’s playing out even now as some claim that it’s black people’s behavior or unique physiology that accounts for the higher rates of COVID-19 infection in black communities.
It’s perpetuated in our language, as Allison has noted. Here’s one important example: the shift from using the term “slaves,” to using the term “people who were enslaved.” More reporters and commentators are catching on, but not all.
To label someone a slave is to say that being a slave is an inherent, intrinsic part of that person’s nature. That’s who they are, by nature, a slave. It places the cause of their enslavement on their own shoulders.
To speak, on the other hand, of “people who were enslaved” retains the humanity of those persons, identifies them as “we” and puts the responsibility for their enslavement where it belongs, on the enslavers, on the people who chose to enslave other human beings. A small change in wording, with tremendous implications for how we portray and see black people, and for shifting the line of care and inclusion.
Where Is the Edge of Your Compassion?
This third Sunday exploring compassion, as we move from self-compassion and compassion for other people in our life, to expanding who we mean when we say “we,” our invitation to you is to locate one growing edge of your compassion, where the line is being challenged, or tested, stretched or loosened, or opened….and to consider whether and in what ways you are being called to extend your compassion out a little bit farther.\
Maybe the current edge of your compassion has to do with which animals, or which life forms you are able to feel empathy with, such that you want them not to suffer, want them be happy, healthy, at ease.
Maybe the current edge of your compassion has to do with an entire group of people – a culture, a race, a gender, a political persuasion, a nationality, a clique –
Maybe the current edge of your compassion has to do with someone very near, a family member or a friend or a person whose behavior grates on your nerves….
The indicator or clue that you are at an edge might be that someone, some being, is just outside the ring of your inclusion, just outside your sense of we, someone you are holding just out of reach in the category of “other” – and that you are not feeling entirely right or at ease about that.
We invite you to spend some time and attention at your edge this week. Some of the options:
- Use the Metta/Loving Kindness meditation practice.
- Practice using a different pronoun, something other than “it,” for example
- Notice the language you are using and hearing. Is it unnecessarily violent, or does it inaccurately claim to capture someone’s essence, like the word “slave.”
- Get a cup and stiff piece of paper out, have at the ready, to liberate the critters you don’t really want to share your space with at the moment
- Choose not to step on that ant or watch your path more carefully as you move down the sidewalk.
- Make different choices about what you eat this week.
Cultivating compassion – practicing compassion – changes us, not only on the horizontal dimension, but also, as our heart and awareness shift and expand, on the vertical dimension, in our sense of relationship to all that transcends our individual life and self. And when that shifts, who knows what else could happen toward the good.
May you know self-compassion, compassion for the others, compassion for the widest circle of “we” that you can hold.
So may we be.
Sources cited, referenced, consulted…
Jinpa, Thupten. A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. United States, Hudson Street Press, 2015.
Piercy, Marge. “The Low Road,” published in The Moon Is Always Female. United States, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
Interview with Samani Pratibha Pragya on BBC Radio World Service’s “Heart and Soul.” The Incredibly strict diet of a Jain monk. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-32037919