Embedded in some of the worst human actions is fine human action. Ten days ago a teacher hid her pupils from a deranged American gunman at the cost of her own life. A bereaved parent felt for the family of that killer of his child.
Some set out to imprison. Others want to open doors. In October the Taleban shot a 14-year-old Pakistani in the head for advocating education for girls, calling her an “obscenity” against Islam. Pakistan’s army chief said Islam guarantees everyone, male and female, “equal inalienable rights to life, property and human dignity”.
The United States is not a shooting gallery. Most Americans get on with life in much the way most of us here do. Pakistan is not a fortress of indignity. Most there try in their culturally different way to live regular lives as we aim to do.
Those regular lives — here or in Pakistan or Connecticut — cannot be one-dimensional. Each human is unique. Daily life forces us to respect others’ uniqueness, their capacities and incapacities, if we are to live well. Deals must be done, ideas and ideals adjusted to the realities of the street or locality or nation.
None of us is without value. None of us carries no damage. We are complicit in that complexity.
Here is a take on a man most would think extremely damaged, Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who gunned down young people for their different politics:
“Obviously, we need to show compassion towards (the victims of terrible events). (And) there is understandably much fear and anger towards the perpetrators.
“However … imagine being full of fear and hate like Mr Brevik. Those feelings have never made me feel happy. If you can show compassion to the most destructive, then you can show unending compassion to those who suffer the most.”
The writer was Shaun McKinney, a severely disabled Aucklander who died aged 26 in November.
McKinney lived a full life, to the limits of his disability, determined to run a business. “Paradoxically,” he wrote, “some of us have more struggles but suffer less. If you are accustomed to struggle you learn to deal with it, you realise that things happen over which you have no control.
“Struggle can make people bitter and selfish or it can make them feel empathy and compassion towards others.”
McKinney’s struggles would make the struggles of the rest of us feel like a walk on the beach. But he saw options. His mother wrote after he died that he endured his struggle “with such dignity and grace that one might suspect Shaun understood that the struggle was only one side of the coin of life and chose to express other, more important things”.
McKinney did not want pity. Pity is no practical use. Philip Patston, another severely disabled, determinedly upbeat Aucklander — and a leader — made that point: “Shaun wanted to inspire people to rethink compassion, remove its commonly held association with pity and consider how ‘smart compassion’ could alleviate suffering and create new solutions to old problems.”
Patston’s and McKinney’s insight applies to the child poverty debate.
There is a “do-good” line, doing nice things to others. Much good is done that way by good people and that good is true and valuable. The risk is that the recipients stay inferior, not whole, like the pitied disabled.
The other line is to treat the poor, like the disabled, as whole. Their struggles are bigger than those of the comfortably waged. They will be more whole if they can “express other, more important things”.
Apply that to their children. Pity is no practical use to them. Investing in them so they have a real option to be the whole person McKinney was determined to be accords “dignity and grace”.
That is the message in McKinney’s “compassion”: it is “together-passion”, strong fellow-feeling.
Ultimately, we are born alone and die alone and in-between-times live alone with the impossibility of knowing what we and the universe are truly about. But we also live that aloneness with all other alone humans.
McKinney’s compassion puts the “com” in the passion of struggle through life. It makes hope. That used to be a core message of Christmas in the best of Christian teaching.
Try it from another angle: from John Morgan, a businessman with a life of success on his account, now chief executive of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.
Businessmen are supposed to be dessicated autocrats, whose “struggle” is to drive staff to ever greater output — the people who divert Christmas into profit.
Listen to Morgan:
“The ability of humans to multiply their love never ceases to amaze me.
“When you have only one child, you think, ‘I couldn’t possibly love another child as much as this.’ And then you have another child and you do. … Then a grandchild comes along and a whole lot of new love comes out of nowhere.
“The fact is, you never run out of love. You just grow some more.”
“Grow some more love” is the secret of Shaun McKinney’s “unending compassion”. It is the secret of Christmas.