Overcoming the “Gap” Between Compassion and Activism

While many will not agree with me, I defiantly believe that people are mostly good. Most people feel compassion (at least in some circumstances) and are distressed at the suffering of others (at least in some circumstances). Most people would like to see injustice erased from the world. But often, there is a gap between the compassion people feel, and the actions they take to heal the world.

People can shy away from activism for a number of reasons. We don’t want the label of “activist.” We don’t relate or don’t want to relate to people we associate with activism. We don’t have the time for it. Mostly, I think that people are overwhelmed before they can even convert compassion to action: the obstacles seem too great, and there is a nagging fear that if I dip my toe in, I will be completely consumed by the work to be done.

However, I truly believe that the world will not heal until those who are capable of compassion act on it. Here are a few reasons to overcome the “gap”:

There is no one “image” of activism. The word “activist” can conjure images of protestors in Guy Fawkes masks, violent clashes with police, or 60s hippies sticking flowers into the barrels of guns. But just because you do not relate to these particular images of activism is not a reason to write activism off altogether. Similarly, these styles of activism–which work for some but not all–do not need to dominate or define our understanding of what activism is. Activism as I view it is answering the urging of your conscience in a non-violent, loving way. It is an ongoing practice of honoring the great gift of compassion within you. It is a way of living. The way in which you answer this urging will be unique to you and may take many forms.

  • M, a writer, distressed by recent limitations on voting rights, writes letters to her representatives and sends in op eds to local publications eloquently and persuasively expressing her thoughts on the matter
  • L, an extroverted person who loves talking to people, is distressed by the scourge of money in politics and makes an effort to talk about it with the people she meets, even those who do not share her general beliefs
  • W, an artist, strongly believes in raising the minimum wage to $15. He paints a mural that powerfully depicts this struggle, and donates his graphic design skills to a candidate who has vowed to take up the cause

The common thread here is that after witnessing an injustice and feeling the call of compassion, these “activists” did something to answer it. Alternately stated, they did not feel the call and proceed to do nothing.

None of us can see the whole picture. There is a common tendency among highly compassionate and intelligent people to cave to the demands of cynicism, i.e., decide that it’s all useless anyway so why bother? These folks have done their research, assessed the situation, and deduced that every single action they might take won’t make a difference. Fie! Away with this pernicious assumption! Yes, things may seem that way, but until a human gains full omniscience of all that is and all that will happen, there is no justification for suppressing compassionate action on these grounds. People capable of compassion must act as though a just outcome is possible, because it certainly will not be possible if we act otherwise. And yes, I happen to believe that even our small acts of compassion alter the balance between good and evil in a powerful, if unquantifiable, way.

Activism is a life-affirming, community-building, world-view changing exercise. I do not equivocate when I say that compassion is an incredible gift, no less than the key to the meaning and beauty in life. To be alive and yet not use this gift–is that really living? When we live with compassion (meaning feeling and acting on it), we are truly participating in life: we open the door to a goodness that we didn’t even know existed. A deep aspect of this goodness is community. Bearing witness to suffering and injustice is an incredible burden to bear, and one that no one should bear alone. When we engage in activism, we connect with others who are also bearing witness, and who have also chosen to defy cynicism for the sake of compassion. In essence, we take a small miracle that has occurred within us and join it to the similar small miracles that have occurred within others. Such an experience has the power to change what we thought we knew about the world, to our most fundamental assumptions. Maybe it is good after all.

Taken cumulatively, the continual practice of compassion by people of compassion would be absolutely staggering, but even taken individually, actions do matter and they do count. The gift of compassion is also the ability to heal. So, take heart, activists! The good world awaits you.