... in innate compassion
I saw a child yesterday, maybe three years old, walking down the street with her grandpa. There are so many more homeless nowadays, that those who routinely avoid them, find it more difficult. I was waiting for a friend. As I did so, scores, hundreds of people must have walked by, showing nothing but indifference or worse. Well, the child saw a lady drop a bag of food in the lap of a homeless young woman, who smiled broadly in response. And when the little girl came alongside moments later, she offered the young woman one of her sweeties. Now the point of telling this story is to prove that disinterest in, or contempt for, the destitute is not innate. It is inculcated. It is washed into our brains. The little girl had natural empathy and this triggered automatic solidarity. Her compassion was innate.
That it is unusual today is a cause for concern. Our teaching is unambiguous. The love of things, the love of money which means we are able to buy so many things, is just bad for us as individuals and bad for society. It was bad in Judea in the Lord's day and it is bad now. It is not so much the attraction to the new, the novel or the exotic. The child's attraction to shiny things tells us this is part of nature. The problem comes when one person's luxury, an elite's excessive wealth, comes at the expense of the poor, of the impoverished many. Our generation has proved adept at suppressing the instincts of the child with her sweetie. In the past most of us were poor, often terribly so. It is a matter of historical record that, though the attitudes of the rich and powerful were predictably awful, there were those amongst the working poor who built organisations to support each other and improve their lot. Medieval Catholic confraternities were secular as well spiritual, in that they often provided funds for the funerals of the poor, practical support for widows, orphans, brides and the like. Temperance and Friendly societies, trade unions and working mens' institutes, all flourished at the very height of the terrible exploitation of the Industrial Revolution. I suppose we are seeing something of this in the fine volunteers who run our overstretched food banks.
But what must change is the repression of our instinct for compassion and solidarity. How many different excuses have you heard recently? We should reject the pursuit of wealth, forego too many luxuries, because they put barriers between us and our fellow humans, between us and the Lord who loves us. The same Lord who rejected wealth and luxury, who cherished the simplicity, the innate compassion and joy of the children he met. A simpler life for us all will benefit our society, as well as relieving the awful pressure on the Earth's climate. As the Franciscan Richard Rohr wrote:
“A simple lifestyle is quite simply an act of solidarity with the way most people have lived since the beginnings of humanity… Time is not money anymore, despite the common aphorism! Time is life itself. When you agree to live simply, you can easily find a natural solidarity with all people on the edge and the bottom – the excluded, the shamed, and the forgotten – because you stop idealizing the climb and finally realise there isn’t a top anyway.”