Last Monday afternoon, a not unusually but still raw and dreary January day, I was home, lying on our sofa under a blanket, watching episode after episode of the fourth season of a television series we had never seen on regular broadcasts.
I’m not ashamed (OK, maybe just a little) that what we chose for marathon viewing was Breaking Bad, the critically-acclaimed show about a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer who becomes a big-time methamphetamine cook in order to leave behind some money for his wife and children — just about as uncompassionate a show as I have ever watched, and enjoyed every minute of it. What I was ashamed of, however, was that I was lying there at all, instead of bundling up, like I had for at least a decade, or probably closer to the last 15 years, and going downtown to the Martin Luther King Jr. annual parade.
After all, Dr. King had preached that true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. So, in his memory, the King Holiday was not to be seen or used as just a three-day weekend, an extra day off, but a day to do service and call for action. To be systemically compassionate.
A day to hurry up and wait for what has always seemed like hours in some office tower wind tunnel for the marching to begin, down Peachtree and around to Auburn Avenue, chanting and singing. Different issues, different places in the country, in the world, but always asking for, demanding more, justice, more equality, more peace. We shall overcome.
But this year on MLK Day I was fighting a stubborn infection with the locus of pain in a throbbing molar. I was heavily medicated with antibiotics, drowsy from many doses of extra-strength Motrin, just a day away from my first root canal. In no shape to be anywhere other than exactly where I was, couch and housebound, yet overcome with a sense of guilt and shame and a lack of true compassion.
Guilt that I wasn’t where I should have been. Ashamed that I had waited so long to deal with a tooth issue, and that I had most likely brought the suffering upon myself through bad self-care and neglect (none of you have ever felt this way, I am sure). Awash with a sense of seeming indifferent to what is happening outside my own body, my own home: the disparities, the human rights violations, the oppressions.
Some of what I felt, I shared, and in 2012 that means (at least for me and many millions of others) posting on Facebook about my dilemma — wanting to be doing the work of justice and equity in the wider community, but not feeling up to it, trying to feel compassion for myself in the meantime. And seeing the “likes” from friends across the country, one in particular reminding me that taking care of ourselves is the first way to contribute to our world.
So in the discussion today about compassion: what it is, how we have come to understand it and manifest it, how it fits with the history of religion and philosophy — including our own faith tradition, I started where some end — instead of moving away from self-occupation, moving toward self-compassion as a way of understanding how it works for each one of us and in the larger society. How we can judge and shame, or how we help alleviate pain and suffering, even heal ourselves and each other.
Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and writer of numerous books about religious affairs, tells us that the principle of compassion, which lies at the heart, she believes, of all ethical and spiritual traditions, calls us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Her work in comparative religious history over the years has continued to draw her attention and ours to parallel Golden Rules:
- Treat others as you would, yourself, be treated. — Hinduism
- What you yourself hate, do to no man. — Judaism
- Hurt not others with that which pains you. — Buddhism
- Do unto all men as you would wish to have done. — Islam
- Live in harmony, for we are all related. — Native American
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. — Christianity
Armstrong tells us that the Golden Rule in any of its manifestations requires self-knowledge; it asks us to use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is likely to be the way we treat other people. So this is the first in a series of 12 steps toward the more compassionate life she would want for all of us, this and learning all we need to know about empathy, mindfulness, right speech, right dialogue, right action, and how to really see one another.
When she was awarded a TED prize in 2007 from this nonprofit organization that holds conferences about, and supports individuals for, ideas worth spreading, she decided to use the money she was given to help create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion written by leaders from a variety of major faiths that would, if successful, counter the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred. Elements of this charter call upon all of us to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity and cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies. As Karen Armstrong describes: to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in a polarized world.
The work she has done around affirming and promoting this principle is far reaching, aimed at global change, as it should be, preventing religious warfare and ethnic genocide, for example.
But for me, this past week, the powerful workings of compassion began with that toothache. A persistent and worsening toothache that forced me to make a long-avoided appointment with a new dentist — a stranger to me — to sit in the unfamiliar chair in her office and be x-rayed, to have a painful place in my mouth poked with various steel instruments, to be told I indeed had a problem that needed immediate fixing, and some longer-term “issues,” like gum disease that needed tending to.
All of which I had heard before, me and 80 percent of the adults in this country, more than half of whom never go to the dentist, some — many of whom because they do not have insurance or the money to pay for their care — but others, as many as 75 percent of them, experiencing some degree of dental fear, women more than men, younger people more than older people. In some cases, they have become afraid because of a past traumatic, difficult, or even painful dental experience, and others, including sexual abuse. However these experiences do not explain, we are told, why other people develop so-called dental phobia. The perceived manner of the dentist, it has been found, is an important variable. Dentists who were considered impersonal, uncaring, uninterested, even judgmental can cause high dental fear, while patients who have had painful procedures have failed to develop this fear and phobia if they perceived their dentist as caring and warm.
There are, of course, ever-improving methods available for pain management that can help make the actual physical treatment work better — and anti-anxiety medications as well. Besides these medical solutions, there are simply ways that a dentist can be with a patient — just that, which can profoundly transform the experience as well.
The dentist I saw last week chose to do just that — to be with me. When I apologized for my lack of consistency in seeking preventive care, to put it mildly, she could have fussed and scolded, judged and shamed, pulling out pictures of advanced gum conditions and the consequences thereof. But she didn’t. She volunteered that she struggles with weight issues, choosing to self-medicate with food and ignoring the need to exercise or consult a doctor. We all have something, she said.
She had me at that.
We all have something. The heart of compassion.
We all have something, and for Paula Deen, television’s self-crowned queen of Southern Cooking, as one reporter has called her, this past week she finally disclosed what she has known for the past three years that she has type 2 diabetes, being managed with a medication she has become a paid spokesperson for. She announced that her response had been not abstinence from her favorite meals, but more moderation in a diet heavy with fat and salt, which she has endorsed and modeled on cooking shows where she wields slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise, and concocts recipes such as one for “nutter bacon cheese balls” — otherwise called a widow-maker — pork slaw, and deep fried cheesecake. She has eliminated sweet tea altogether, she says, the tablespoons of sugar she consumed that way every day of her life.
Some of the news coverage has focused on what can be seen as a self-serving exploitation of her serious medical condition — avoiding disclosure and continuing dietary business as usual until there was a lucrative contract associated with it — while continuing to peddle grossly unhealthy foods and, as one person put it, egregious indulgence.
Most vocal of all of her critics, perhaps, has been chef Anthony Bordain, a fellow food celebrity, who said in one interview that Deen’s advocacy of fatty food made her the worst, most dangerous person to America, pushing recipes filled with sugar and grease in the midst of a diabetes and obesity epidemic in this country.
Thousands of her loyal fans have posted messages of sympathy and tweeted their support, protesting that she is being singled out and thrashed in the media, and that criticisms of her reflect a level of classism and sexism and stereotyping about the South. One food writer has pointed out that no one vilifies Michelin chefs for putting sticks of butter in their food, but when a Southern woman does it, it’s tacky.
One defender has observed that as a diabetic, she is enduring a severe public scolding because of her cooking and eating habits, even while her illness was probably caused by any number of forces, including heredity.
And even if and while her diet has a lot to do with her condition, is this very viral shaming and rush to judgment helpful to her and to the more than 25 million Americans believed to have diabetes — the something they have?
Another story that was making the media rounds just a few months back was about a non-celebrity, Mary Hyde, a 64-year-old woman who recalls her mother’s response after hearing her daughter had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when she was in her mid-forties:
“I told you not to eat all those sweet rolls when you were a teenager.”
For years after her mother’s reproach, Hyde admits that she kept her condition and treatment pretty much to herself. She didn’t speak about it or test her blood sugar in public. Her efforts to hide her diabetic condition aren’t usual, wrote reporter Rita Rubin. Few chronic diseases carry more stigma than type 2 or so-called adult-onset diabetes. While patients with heart disease or cancer are often showered with sympathy, she noted, people with Hyde’s type of diabetes are criticized for being fat, lazy, or junk food junkies. None of which was particularly true for her.
What we eat does contribute, of course, and excess weight. But not everyone who is overweight is diabetic and there are genetic triggers in some ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely to develop it.
The problem is that shame plus denial, especially with loved ones or medical professionals, can be a risky combo, experts warn, leading to poor management of the condition, which then leads to the complications associated with it, including blindness and amputations. And the economic toll for all of us, including health care costs, absenteeism, and lost productivity.
One diabetic has shared that her disease has caused her to feel woefully inadequate, failing to maintain perfect blood sugars and a perfectly “normal life,” leading to spiraling negativity, self-blame, isolation, as well as a life-endangering lack of self-care and self-compassion.
Instead of a deep knowing that we all have something, we are all connected, and have a common ground we share.
Not all obese people are diabetic, but obesity is being seen in what has been called epidemic proportions in this country and over much of the developed world. And those who are overweight, and especially obese, the object of both empathetic concern and derision.
A report released last week issued by the Centers for Disease Control (a federal institution well known to many of you) indicated that alarmingly high obesity rates have remained steady over the last 12 years. While the good news is that the rate is not increasing, there will still be ongoing consequences for society — with children entering adulthood heavier than they have ever been in human history.
This piece of data is reflected in efforts by First Lady Michele Obama and others to highlight and fight childhood obesity, in particular, overall obesity, in general, citing the costs to society of failing to do so, with direct and indirect financial costs of around $147 billion.
The intractability of childhood obesity, sincere concern and frustration on behalf of medical professionals and policy makers, have led to the unveiling of a public awareness media campaign by a group called the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance, with billboards now appearing around the state with pictures of heavier children with hard hitting messages: Chubby Kids May Not Outlive Their Parents, Fat Kids Become Fat Adults, Big Bones Didn’t Make Me This Way — Big Meals Did.
Another group, The Obesity Action Coalition, is pushing back on this billboard crusade, conducting their own poll of Georgians, 82 percent of whom agreed that the campaign hurts, not helps, children affected by obesity, agreeing that it is offensive. Certainly not compassionate.
Those professionals who are opposing the billboards, both the visuals and the language, are citing scholarly articles like one in the American Journal of Public Health that say that negative attitudes toward obese persons are pervasive in North American society, with numerous studies documenting weight-based stereotypes that overweight people are lazy, weak-willed, unsuccessful, unintelligent, lack self-discipline, have poor willpower, and are non-compliant with weight reduction treatment. Recent estimates are that the prevalence of weight discrimination has increased more than 60 percent over the past decade.
The point of this particular article was that this kind of judgment and stigma is not a beneficial tool for improving health. The authors call it a social justice issue, which of course it is, but it can also be called a compassion issue as well, or lack thereof.
Disease stigma has been with us throughout history, they tell us, imposing suffering on those seen as pariahs — vulnerable individuals and groups — and preventing efforts to heal or treat them. In Jesus’ time, the list of “sinners” — the ones he hung out with — included some vocational and behavioral outcasts — prostitutes and tax collectors — and some who had diseases that carried stigma — people with leprosy and epilepsy.
Over time, other conditions and sufferers have been judged and ostracized, seen as Other. In 19th century America, Irish immigrants were believed to be responsible for epidemic diseases because they were “filthy and unmindful of public hygiene,” and their deaths from cholera retribution for their being sinful and spiritually unworthy.
When African Americans were dying from tuberculosis in the early 20th century, instead of providing treatment for them, whites were warned not to co-mingle with them. Add to the list of stigma: people with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDS; women, especially young unmarried women, facing unintended pregnancy and having later-term abortions, and those with mental illnesses. We all have a list of our own, if we are honest with ourselves and each other, whether meth addicts or bulimics or smokers. Or people who don’t go to the dentist.
We wonder about them. We fuss about them. We can’t understand why they do what they do — knowing full well what the consequences may surely be. But, however sincere and well-meaning, in no instances has shame and blame or what some call inculcating a sense of spoiled identity worked to help or cure, to get people to adopt healthier behaviors or make a significant change.
What has helped as an antidote to shame is self-compassion and the compassion of others, because it resists judgment and seeks understanding. As one researcher discovered, compassion allows for imperfection and mistakes, and sees life as a journey of experimentation, discovery, and learning.
Rev. Richard Gilbert, retired UU minister and social justice activist, believes that compassion is the spiritual value that undergirds Unitarian Universalist ethics. He says that living compassionately is an act of thanksgiving, flowing from the blessings of life that we wish to share. In our imperative for social reform, he believes that we may overlook or move too quickly past the pastoral impulse — the feeling with others — that can move us to and sustain us in humane action on their behalf. That sense that we all have something to overcome, something we suffer, and empathy to give and receive — to be moved by another’s pain and suffering as if it were our own.
Yet the word compassion was not originally included in the original language of our second principle — justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, nor is it in our own UUCA mission statement today.
It was not Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice, Gilbert reminds us, but our own 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. The bending, he says, is not automatic. It depends on people who feel equity, justice, and compassion, all in good measure, as imperatives of their faith.
May it be so.