Two Small Steps to One Large Problem
[Exploring Justice, Compassion, & How to (Actually) Change the World]
Part One — An Introduction to Our Situation on World Changing
So you want to change the world?
You have a sense that we could do better? That all is not how it ought to be? That the pain and suffering and injustice and failure and frustration needs to be confronted?
Welcome to the common experience of human history.
Notably, we can certainly claim that the world has changed; that this humanity project, even with its ills and mistakes, has moved in a better direction. Also to note, there is still improvement to be had. So how does the world change? How do we engage with the seemingly inevitable inequities that confront and compel us to imagine a better version of the world?
Well, the most transformative movements of history, while nuanced with a plethora of ingredients, components, and contexts, usually are grounded in two words.
Two often overused and under-realized words — compassion and justice.
In a world that could use the actual manifestation of both, let’s discuss the etymology and depth of these words, as well as how they are different.
Because the answer to building a better world, healing the wounds that have created so much suffering, and bringing human flourishing on a social scale will begin with realizing that we need the physical enactment of both of these words in their particular order.
And that any altering of our current state on a large, systemic scale will begin, quite necessarily, with you embedding these words in the flesh of your identity.
Part Two — Com | Passion
Compassion is often used in a way that is better understood as sympathy…which is not what it is intended to mean nor how it has been understood in the larger swath of historical use.
- “Com” is latin for ‘with’.
- “Passion” is latin for ‘suffer’.
Therefore, we might better understand compassion as “to suffer with”.
As opposed to feeling badly for someone, having pity for them, or throwing assistance at a problem, compassion is when you enter into the particular experience and feel, see, & experience what is wrong as if you are the victim of the experience. You enter the suffering. You fully experience the downward concoction of what is wrong in its totality alongside of those who are, now that you are there, encountering this with you.
Sympathy is a name for the first description — feeling for.
Empathy is the name for the second — feeling with.
Compassion has a lot more to do with empathy than sympathy.
To be compassionate, then, is not helping from a distance. The common plea of philanthropic compassion and the action that results from “feeling bad” for those in poverty or the victims of a natural disaster or any other social or physical situation that you believe is not how it ought to be does not technically have anything to do with compassion. Rather, the empathic experience of joining — mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and any other descriptive state of being that you can conjure up — that suffering is what it means to be compassionate. Being intimately connected to the perceived issue is what will procure any movement forward.
Essentially, once you have perceived some sort of injustice or suffering, there are two options.
One is shallow and disconnected. The other is compassion fueled by empathy. One has a goal to fix the problem, the other is set on healing the problem…a much slower, involved process.
Martin Luther King Jr., someone who might have something to say about changing the world on a macro scale, once gave a speech about this using the parable Jesus tells about the Samaritan neighbor. Two guys walk by a man who is destitute and destined for death in a ditch on the good ole’ Jericho road. The first two passers-by, a Pharisee and a Sadducee (important details that are worth exploring in more depth for a better context on the point of the parable) may have been sympathetic, but their sympathy is not capable of healing what is wrong. They, even with possible good intentions, leave the injustice & suffering to continue and nothing is changed…even if they do feel bad or flip in a coin or bandage or kind word to the half-dead man. The Samaritan (again, loaded implication here) comes by and he doesn’t “help” or just say something, he takes action…and his action results in him walking into the ditch, joining the man in his suffering, and walking out of the ditch together.
This is compassion. It is a healing mechanism — not just to help, but to liberate; to actually do something about the situation by entering.
A well referenced quote for which I do not have a name explains,
“If you have come to help, do not bother. If you have come to join me, then we will both be liberated together.”
We will only bring people out of the ditch if we are one of those in the ditch. We will only heal a wound of the world by joining in it through the empathic, connected process of “suffering with” one another.
But that is simply the first step — which implies that there is a second.
Part Three — Justice
So we start with compassion — but compassion isn’t justice. Maybe we could say that compassion makes justice possible, it begins the process. Though, on its own, compassion is still a good and powerful action that offers healing, it does not allow the cause of the wrong to be dealt with more fully. Essentially, being compassionate might offer healing of the wrong in the present, but compassion doesn’t change the origin of the wrong in the first place.
You could say that compassion is “social action” — an important part of being human beings with one another.
But in cooperation with that, we also need “social change” — that is what we call justice.
Now, before certain keywords like “social” and “justice” cause a brain malfunction in the political demeanor of certain audience members here — let’s focus on an important detail. As you can probably tell, I am for compassion and social change and justice. I also do not resonate with the pronounced label of “Social Justice Warriors.” Not because social justice is a bad thing — let us recall the vast amounts of human flourishing that have been exemplified in the name of social justice — but because its prospective stance is very different from how the words “social” and “justice” have been used and acted out by so many traditions before the so-called SJW experience was tagged in our common culture. I do not resonate with this phrase (and, from what I can tell, those who are tagged with this label don’t necessarily refer to themselves as such — it is a label given from others) because I do not think the mentality that has created this label goes far enough. It seems to involve a lot of words, rallies, petitions, and other outwardly visible inactions that resembles the sympathy of pity and philanthropy as opposed to compassion and, as I will attempt to define shortly, justice. While I do not have authority to describe an entire generic label of people and am by no means an accredited psychologist or sociologist, it is my opinion based on the social justice warriors I have experienced that makes me wonder if the words “social justice” simply sounded good together as a rallying cry for something else without understanding the history and use of those words in actual change throughout said history. Unfortunately, as Wendell Berry often recites about environmentalists, when an attempt at building a better world through social systems takes on the identity of a movement, it becomes difficult to do the actual work of compassion and the proceeding necessity of justice.
I’m looking for a more historical understanding of the word justice. Don’t let its political hijacking ruin the word. Don’t let the movement close your ears and mind to the possibility of its rooted nature over time. And for those who do claim the movement, don’t let the current understanding limit the possibility of what a deeper expression might lead to.
What is also interesting to me is that even people who vehemently condemn the words “social justice” because of their political connotation still embrace the nature of justice. One person might claim justice with a focus on an economic reality. Another might claim justice in a sense of freedom. One might focus on education or their personal health while another will focus on healthcare and racism. What’s interesting is how, no matter the political leaning, when a wrong is made evident to any individual, they seem to be just as inclined to confront the wrong — especially if it deals with their family or their children. What I mean to push us towards is that the category of justice may be very different in different contexts or with different people, but the overarching bend towards building a better world seems to be approved by all. Don’t let current usage evaporate the long-standing meaning. Instead, recover the better meaning and allow it to shape how you approach the world you live in. You can delineate the subject matter to whatever level you would prefer (the more politically “conservative” will bend more towards the individual, the more politically “liberal” will bend more towards the social whole) and we can debate endlessly which one is better. Not only am I less interested in those labels and how they aren’t accurate depictions of their use throughout history, the disagreement appears to be more about subject matter than compassion or justice. A worthwhile conversation would be finding more cohesive agreement on subject matter, but for the sake of the world, agreement on compassion and justice, no matter the level or context, is a good starting point. How we can affect the most human beings and the most components of the world (that will then affect said human beings) possible should constantly be the filter through which we embody our lives in this ever necessary process.
Justice, then. How else might we understand it?
Justice is the act of rectifying what has gone wrong so that it no longer goes wrong. It is the overarching healing that slowly makes the need for healing no longer necessary — it eliminates the problem and its potential. Justice is when social action begins to embody social change so that the situation is immediately healed, putting a dent in the world’s decline, but then made unrepeatable.
Compassion is caring for the wound. Justice is eliminating the possibility for that particular wound to take place.
This is where King goes next in his speech about the Jericho Road.
He declares that we need compassion — we must join our fellow human’s suffering as they join ours so that we might come out of the ditch (enter your perception of the ditch, whatever it is, here) together, but at some point, we also need to, as King eloquently says, “Re-imagine that Jericho Road.”
We must ask questions about why people end up in the ditch, whatever that ditch happens to be in our current context, in the first place.
We must actually change the atmosphere of that place so that no one is found in the ditch again.
The difference can be captured by another common metaphor — a stream.
If you lived downstream and you noticed a body, maimed and broken having been discarded for death, the act of compassion would not be to shout that you are sorry or write them a check or sell T-shirts for their recovery…it would be to climb into the water, bring them out with you, and see to their healing as if it was your own.
You begin with compassion.
But let’s say the next day, there is another body…and then another…and day after day this kept happening.
At some point, you could either continue to do the compassionate work of healing what is wrong or you could also seek to fix the problem at its source in hopes of eliminating the process of bodies floating down the river.
At some point, you need to walk upstream and find out why there are bodies floating down the water and where they coming from.
Or, as Shane Claiborne describes the process:
“If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. But eventually you need to ask who owns the pond and why it is polluted.”
Because then things will actually start to change.
Part Four — The Large Difficulty With a Small Answer
These, then, in whatever context you feel is necessary to confront, is how we might generally go about building a better world that leads to a better human experience to the most realized degree possible.
- Start with compassion
- Pursue justice
Slight problem — two simple steps may come across as being an easy task. In fact, the opposite is true. However you begin to enter into this pattern that will allow things to truly change will be difficult.
Unfortunately, instilling a norm of compassion and justice will not be easy.
First, because it involves you, as an individual with autonomy and cognition, making an intentional decision to put yourself into a position of discomfort. It involves you transcending your ego-centric tendency to use your time and energy and life to bring another into your sphere of concern.
You want to make a change? Well, you can certainly begin with the big hands and machines and cultural abstracts that pull the strings of the universe. But more effective means might just be the relational space you inhabit with whatever product of those massive structures find themselves surfacing around you. The oft quoted saying is that you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time, but it is also true that you can only begin with the bite that is right in front of you; and by putting in the good, consuming, and quite possibly dirty work of actually digesting that bite with all of your being.
Second, because this implies that the relational process is not a bystander sport. It is not abstract, but rather, so tangible and tactile and physical and involved that it will not allow you to continue a previous trajectory if you are going to follow through with walking into the water to retrieve the body (whatever that metaphor translates to in your context is quite subjective) and then walking upstream. Compassion and justice will rearrange your rhythm in a way that makes certain things impossible.
The” movement” style nature that appeals so much to our culture is so popular at least partly because it doesn’t cost much. You can sign your name, watch the video from your computer, comment on social media, and keep a certain distance. The things we currently do to ‘change the world’ often don’t involve actually doing anything. We would rather hold meetings, start non-profits, and talk about the bodies in the water than actually go in.
The third reason this is difficult is because it involves a process that we would rather avoid — empathy through vulnerability. You cannot move towards selflessness by staying where you are, especially if it involves a well protected bubble of public image and self-preservation. To walk into the ditch involves a letting go, but you cannot donate tactile love without doing so. Making the decision to leave the safety and comfort of the road on your way to the next destination in your rhythm will result in you giving a part of yourself away; it will begin with you embracing your own needs, your own finitude.
Philanthropy allows us to stay at a distance. Love involves self-expenditure. A society that does not embrace its own need, then, will have no opportunity for compassion and justice. To “help” the dying flesh in the ditch will allow things to stay the same for you and, therefore, the world. To join the dying flesh in the ditch and then walk upstream will be the result of someone who has cast aside their self-preserved identity for love.
This is why compassion and justice must be paired with empathy — seeing, feeling, & experiencing the world as if you are the other person. Transcending yourself for the good of the whole. Making your interests parallel with the interests of everyone.
Teaching empathy, raising children and communities who see their neighbors as a global village who will thrive or destruct together, and getting people to stop being so egocentric so that we can interact with humanity & the biosphere with a world-centric perspective will involve a slow, difficult process — one that begins with a self-emptying or, as the Christian tradition has articulated, the act of askesis, self-denial; being vulnerable with yourself to physically seat yourself in a situation, a place, a relationship, an interaction, or a frustrating failure. This is conveniently avoided by a culture of having it all together and not embracing our own humanity. The value of self-preservation, comfort, and security makes this sort of posture an unwanted expression and, therefore, makes it difficult either because we begin to think it is not necessary (allowing everything to stay as it is), that we have no time for it (allowing us to end our action by shouting our disapproval if something bothers us), or because it would be in the way of our own self-preservation or success. But if we can transcend ourselves and allow that ego-centric value to die, as the Christian tradition in its ideal claims, then we will not need to own or protect or defend the self and can then truly donate ourselves in love, compassion, and the pursuit of justice.
But this will be difficult.
Doing this will require a physical vulnerability, a reconfiguring of personhood and lifestyle that we would rather evade.
But if we do, we will truly embody the fullness of humanity.
Fourth, then, this will be difficult for a larger and yet really small reason.
This will have to begin with you.
Compassion and justice cannot be legislated or mandated or written into the fabric of culture to conveniently keep it as a macro-scale issue. Any problem, but especially global problems, will be met by the small individuals who move in a different direction as they experience those problems in their own, small context. In the face of the plethora of problems that still ebb our global village towards an entropic, selfish demise — we need to start somewhere. If we are to confront the “isms” of our day and the destruction of lives, communities, and our world, we need to begin with practicing these two steps ourselves. We need to begin by confronting whatever situation it is in the small places where we are. There is no such thing as not making a difference because whichever direction you decide to go will make a difference, even if it is small. One person doing the right thing, one person stepping into the ditch and walking upstream will be one more person doing what little they can. That fraction of a difference, then, is still worth it.
And only then can it become normal.
But it will begin with you controlling the only aspect you have control over — yourself.
Practice compassion. Move towards (this definition of) justice.
Whether personal freedoms in a nation-state, an economic fallacy, an ecological situation, a social injustice like racism, the education of children, gender inequality, poverty, a culture of self-harm, mental illness, public safety, rural decline, urban crime, food deserts, divorce, addiction, toxic relationships, governmental concerns — enter the stream where you are and pursue healing. Join the situation. Give it your time and energy and presence. Do what you are capable of doing with the people, places, and things that surround you knowing that it will cost you something, that it will create a new trajectory, that it will require the difficult reconfiguration of empathy, that it will assert the very life of your being and its physicality, but that we will all be better for it.
The only way you can begin to enact change is through the relational power of your presence. Investing in the person or place or situation with your time and energy and life is what will stop that one addiction to help put a dent in the addiction crisis or the food crisis or the political crisis. All you have is you and how you interact with those around you, those in your sphere of tangible reality.
What needs changed?
Let that define how you attempt to change the world.
Because that is how we will re-imagine the Jericho road…and the world will, though microscopically, be built in a better direction than it was before you did.
I’m working on discovering how to “Become More Human”
If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here: