Posted by: gcarkner | October 21, 2012

The Lost Art of Compassion

Grad Identity: Is Charity a Lost Art?

In the rough and tumble of  academic life, high achievers are not often challenged to work on their skills of compassion, or to develop a caring heart. The hyper-concern for brilliance wins hands down. In this post, we want to problematize a fear and avoidance, yes even a distaste for commitment to the Other in the West (Global North).  A self-constructing outlook has great currency among today’s university culture. For instance, one survey suggests that a good percentage of undergraduate students think that they should be given a B Grade just for showing up to class. Recently a friend visiting from Cambridge University noted among students there the intense obsession with science alone, a refusal to think about anything else. Tough Question: Does academic achievement also foster an indifference, or a perceived  freedom from responsibility for the Other, and an obsession with self-interest? Is one’s commitment calculated first and foremost in favour of oneself and one’s own growth and advancement, to the exclusion of the needs of other fellow travellers? Under social pressure, this posture can easily be adopted and sanctioned by Christian postgrad students. Can we be brilliant and compassionate at the same time? That is the question.

Is there not today a deficiency of the heart–a compassion deficit–that is a barrier to our credibility as academics? Mother Teresa said it well: “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbour who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.” Truth and justice are very important and they fuel and inspire many lively conversations on campus, but they are not everything. There is a time to move beyond justice to mercy. Carlo Carretto learned that humility and openness is essential. He had to travel all the way to the Sahara Desert to live and work among the poor Arab tribes people in order to grapple with this issue in his spiritual life—to learn the art of love.  In the city, he was so distracted by his obsession with truth and justice, by commerce and trade that he lost sight of people. Marquette theologian D. Stephen Long makes a bold claim in Speaking of God (p. 159):

Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve infinite desires is not negative but positive. Thus we do not need to negate reason in order to believe, but rather to supplement and intensify it. We receive knowledge as a gift. … Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, goodness and beauty. It illumines our lives.

There are over one thousand verses of Judeo-Christian scripture dedicated to concern for the poor and marginalized. That ought to catch our attention: God is a friend to the poor. One is reminded of that incredible speech by Portia in the Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice  in defense of the quality of mercy, something that she claims makes us more human. Compassion is an important matter of moral and spiritual weightiness. Christian claims to love are often flaky, sentimental and inflated, unlike the heritage of agape and the narrative of love in their scriptures. In many sectors, Christian love is shallow, having lost its fiber, its force and backbone, creating a crisis of credibility. The culture of acquisitiveness undermines compassion. We need this kind of self-crtique, but we are not hopelessly stuck there.

Graduate students have so much in terms of giftedness, privileges and opportunities of higher learning. But followers of Jesus are called, not to wallow in pride of intellectual giftedness, but instead to humble servanthood, to take responsibility for the communal good, for the Other. Education is not only for personal gain (sui generis); students have a higher and more significant task and calling. The potential of the imagination is often just below the surface.

Imagine how you can give back to society and help to build a sense of neighbourhood on and off campus, to deal with the cries for help in the Global South, to problem solve the world’s ailments. Put your research skill and genius to work for fellow humans. In fact, in the early twenty-first century, some of our wealthiest entrepreneurs and statesmen are rediscovering charity and generosity; their second career is in benevolence, a great way to navigate one’s mid-life crisis. Christian students ought to think actively as entrepreneurs of the good as they hone their skills and shape the use of their freedom to set the course of their lives. Skills and freedom are empty without compassion, which builds into the giver and the receiver. It builds social and moral capital.

Moral growth and stature develop through careful and consistent service to others; this is the deeper fun of life, the joy of life (Don Page, Servant Empowered Leadership). This is where meaning really kicks in, as many psychologists and social theorists have discovered. Many career counselors reiterate that 80% of our value in the job world is based on character, who and what we are as persons, not merely expertise and skill sets. Personal growth as a grad student is a critical complement to our research skills. Take advantage of the many opportunities to serve while you are a student, even in small ways (every cup of cool water counts). Break out of this cultural trap of narcissism and take things to the next level. Allow God to give you some traction in this quest to see, respond to, and serve the Other. Jean Vanier felt the call to take time out from teaching philosophy to care for people who struggled with various handicaps; he has live a most profound life as a result and influenced many thousands.

Become part of the Jubilee experiment; recover the lost art of charity (a strong value) from the dustbin of history. Richard Foster writes, “Jesus, living out of justice and shalom, challenges our vested interests. He rebukes our rugged individualism and self hoarding. And he invites us to be the kind of people in whom justice and compassion flow freely. Jesus, who lived in the virtue and power of that Jubilee life points the way.” (Streams of Living Water, p. 14). Struggling with identity? Take a break from obsession with your worries and ambitions; take time to grow your heart, time to be human, time to go deep. These are values we want to affirm in the GCU community and UBC at large.

Gord Carkner

See also Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God

Jean Vanier, CBC Audio Becoming Human 1998 Massey Lectures (also a book)

James Davison Hunter article: https://ubcgcu.org/2012/08/08/james-davison-hunters-concept-of-faithful-presence/

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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