The Hard Work of Compassion

Anyone who seeks to understand goodness needs to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post about the “hard work of compassion.” He is an African-American engaged in the not-so-mundane task of reading Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. He writes:

For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.  But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

I am also struck by this comment:

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving.

Compassion isn’t a favor; it’s power, or so he writes. I may well agree, but this idea of his is so new and emotionally raw, that I have to sit with it for a while. At the very least, I think he’s right that our society views compassion as a favor, and that is just deep down, dead wrong for any culture to do. I don’t know whether or not compassion is power, but the human capacity to see more than the surface, to understand and to extend kindness when no kindness or understanding is returned has to be something far more than just a favor.

I can’t claim the struggle of slavery as my own and to do so would be wrong. But this man’s struggle with compassion, his willingness to do the hard work of seeing the humanity of the people who refused to see his own humanity reminds me of my own  struggle with Christianity. In that, we are brother and sister. I’m grateful for his willingness to do the work and for his insights.

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5 Responses to The Hard Work of Compassion

  1. Kelley says:

    I am in awe that Coates is even entertaining the thoughts about compassion that he is, which speaks to the idea of goodness in a way that not many people have. I agree that compassion is not a favor. Perhaps the power of compassion is it’s ability to lift up not only the person receiving it but also the one offering it.

  2. Wow. I really think he’s on to something when he says our society views compassion as a favor. In that light, compassion is just feeling sorry for people who are suffering and doing the occasional favor for them. But from reading your interviews with the Buddhist roshis, I think compassion is much more than that.

    It strikes me that the same could be said of goodness. Goodness could just be being nice to people, not breaking laws, doing what’s expected of you. Or it can be something much deeper and more powerful. I think Coates’s essay is pointing you toward the deeper meaning of your search.

  3. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I, too, cast my vote for “compassion as a favor” as one of the most compelling moral insights I have encountered, and for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece, itself, as proof that compassion is power. It provides the leverage to uplift and to elevate us all that may be the key to rising above age-old conflicts and healing our own wounds.

  4. dianesilver says:

    Thanks for your comments! I’ve been reading through the more than 100 comments on TNC’s posting, and they are fascinating. Well worth reading. I do love the idea, Nancy, that goodness is something much deeper and more powerful than merely being nice and crossing with the light. I like to believe that goodness and compassion (a subset of goodness,I think) will change the world, but then I am a dreamer.

  5. Pingback: The Hard Work of Compassion ctd. | In Search of Goodness

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