(photo credit. Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion? – Jack Kerouac @HotelXixim by Ron Mader on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)
When I was several months pregnant with my second child, we invited close friends, a couple, over for supper. I wore a navy blue dress and had the front of my hair pulled away from my face in a barrette. I remember how I looked that night 17 years ago because of what the man in the couple said upon seeing me.
“You look like Monica Lewinsky!”
He was smiling, proudly, as if he’d discovered a new element or the cure for cancer. My husband and his wife had their mouths agape, dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to react so I laughed and tried to brush it off, even though I could see his point (big eyes, wavy dark hair, blue dress.) Our friend, noticing the shock and dismay he’d left in his wake, justified his comment by saying that he thought Monica Lewinsky was beautiful. Then the conversation turned into some variation of the discussion everybody was having those days about “that woman” and that cigar and that unfortunate stain on Lewinsky’s blue dress.
In her TED talk, a now 41-year old Lewinsky calls herself “patient zero” in what we recognize today as the technologically-fueled onslaught of thoughtless cruelty called cyberbullying. This is a talk not to be missed. To hear her tell of her experience of shame and humiliation, as the rest of us talked about her and judged her harshly over glasses of Cabernet and bowls of Beef Bourguignon, is both humbling and inspiring.
For me, the most heartbreaking moment of her talk is when she tells about a telephone conversation she had with her mother in 2010. They were discussing the suicide of Taylor Clemente, the Rutgers college freshman who was bullied relentlessly online after his roommate videotaped him having intimate relations with another man. This is what she says:
“My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family, and she was gutted with pain in a way that I just couldn’t quite understand, and then eventually I realized she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally.”
Lewinsky considers this moment a turning point in her life, an event that pushed her out of herself and back into the public eye, where she could talk about the culture of humiliation that has grown and prospered as a result of the internet revolution and how it’s time for a public intervention. At the center of that intervention, Lewinsky says, is developing a culture of empathy and compassion, not just in real life but online as well.
While I full-heartedly believe that we need to develop a culture of compassion, I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of making it so. My need for some guidance in how to help make this happen led me to watch six more TED talks and do a lot of side reading (which you’ll probably hear about in future blog posts,) all on the subject of compassion.
If you can only watch one more talk, watch Karen Armstrong’s from when she won the TEDPrize in 2008. In “My Wish: The Charter for Compassion,” Armstrong talks about how she’s studied world religions in depth and has discovered that religion is not about believing in things. That is a fairly recent shift in religion’s purpose. Instead, she says, religious doctrines are a summons to action. “ . . . you only understand them when you put them into practice.” She claims that the test of true religiosity, in every single of the major world faiths, is compassion, which brings us into the presence of God or the Divine. “Because in compassion,” she says, “when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.” Ultimately, she tells her audience of her wish for help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule. The primary purpose would be to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos and give guidelines for putting it into practice.
Since her TEDPrize acceptance speech in 2008, Armstrong’s wish has come true: a Charter for Compassion has been created. If you want to read more about it, click on the link here.
Among the other talks I listened to is another one by Karen Armstrong, which expands on some of what she talks about in the TEDPrize talk. In truth, it is interesting but not that different from the first talk. There were two talks by author and scholar Robert Thurman, where he talks about compassion. While both kept my attention, the one about becoming the Buddha was much more engaging, in my opinion. Then, there was a talk by one of my favorite interviewers, Krista Tippett, about how the word compassion has lost its true meaning in our culture and how we need to resurrect it in order to use it to motivate people both religious and secular.
The final talk was by Rabbi Jackie Tabick whose soft-spoken charm imbues her words with greater meaning. She discusses how everybody wants to be compassionate but there are challenges to executing such behavior. She explains how a careful balance of compassion and justice allows us to do good deeds without going insane. She had such a no-nonsense way about her that made me want to watch her talk for longer than the 16 minutes she used. I felt as though I absorbed every word she said and took it to heart.
Links to the talks I watched are below, in the order which I would watch them, if you have limited time and can’t watch all of them.
Monica Lewinsky, The price of shame (link here)
Karen Armstrong, My wish: The Charter for Compassion (link here)
Jackie Tabick, The balancing act of compassion (link here)
Robert Thurman, We can be Buddhas (link here)
Krista Tippett, Reconnecting with compassion (link here)
Karen Armstrong, Let’s revive the Golden Rule (link here)
Robert Thurman, Expanding your circle of compassion (link here)
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