On Democracy and Compassion
October 25, 2020
Two themes are on my mind this week: Democracy and Compassion.
Democracy for two reasons. The obvious one is of course the upcoming election. Regardless of where your political inclination lies, every major election cycle in our country serves as a reminder of how important participation by every one of us is. An old teacher I knew and admired used to remind us of how we should never take our democracy for granted: if we wanted to keep it, we were exhorted, we would need to work at it individually and collectively all the days of our lives. I was struck by that notion, and particularly struck by how much voting was just the starting place. Of course you must vote, we were urged; that part went without saying. But we were needed to participate, and that didn’t just meaning speaking and being heard. It also meant the heavy lifting of rolling up our civic sleeves and doing something for others. Sure, that might mean getting involved in the voting process as a volunteer around election time; but it also meant getting out and helping others in our town or city in between elections. Doing the good work of being a steward of our fellow citizens in any way we could. Recognizing the inherent value and worth of others and that it was our obligation to consider their needs as important as ours and to either make space for their needs to be met or actively try to help meet them. This was democracy’s unwritten code. Democracy wasn’t a yearly event, but a way of being with each other.
Those lessons resonate with me again as we head together, you and I, into scenario planning for the second semester of this school year, work that we’ll start the week after next. We look forward to hearing from you and working with you not only to get a sense of where everyone is, but also to try to crack this nut of the best possible version of Vermont Commons starting in the second semester. Your participation–like the vote–isn’t mandatory, but it sure helps! And it’s a great way to remind and remember that we are all in this together.
Which leads me to thoughts about compassion. The Dalai Lama–in Tibetan Buddhism regarded as the human incarnation of pure compassion–was asked in a forum of religious leaders a few years ago how to lead the most compassionate life. Many of us in the audience expected him to go into a long, elaborate discussion, taking time to suggest extensive guidance on the topic. Instead, he calmly, directly, simply said, “Reduce suffering in the world.”
Our school’s non-discrimination statement, in line with that of the State of Vermont as well as our governing body the National Association of Independent Schools, explains that we do not discriminate based on, among other things, gender and sexual diversity, which includes sexual orientation as well as religion. For some people, this can be challenging, in that their religion’s guidance does not support diversity in sexual orientation, and as a school it’s important that we–particularly given our non-discrimination policy and practice–support both the full variety of religious adherence and the full spectrum of gender and sexual diversity within our community. Regardless of where you may be on these issues, my hope is that compassion can be something we all share. I very much like the Miriam Webster Dictionary definition of compassion: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” It’s why I was struck by Pope Francis’s released statements this week in which he indicates support for same-sex unions. For the Catholic Church, this is a controversial moment, and I don’t seek to downplay that in any shape or form. The election is a controversial moment. Determining whether or not we should be in school, outside, or online is a controversial moment. But I note something in Pope Francis’s statements that aligns with our non-discrimination policy, which is that sympathetic recognition of the distress of same-sex couples not having the same access and opportunity of other couples and a desire to alleviate their distress.
In less than two weeks, on the day after the election (or sometime soon thereafter), some members of our community are going to be very happy, and some are going to be feeling great distress. Can we recognize the inherent humanity, value, and worth of each other regardless of political opinions and reach out to each other in that distress, agreeing that we are all in this together, that we must come together no matter the results of an election and face the distress common to us all? Regardless of politics, of sexual orientation, of faith or belief, we all face a common pandemic, a shared natural environment in need of protection and help, a long-lasting, unresolved history of discrimination. Only together do we succeed, and only together we will feel, and indeed be, fulfilled. Only through compassion.
I am both grateful and heartened to face these times with you. Our community, every day, fills me with hope and deep optimism!