a season to rediscover compassion

A visit earlier this week with a Yukon elder spending a few days in Whitehorse General Hospital reminded me just how much we owe the generations preceding our own.

A visit earlier this week with a Yukon elder spending a few days in Whitehorse General Hospital reminded me just how much we owe the generations preceding our own. His stories of resisting the German occupation of his homeland during the Second World War to adventures mushing along trails here in his adopted territory and camping out on cut spruce-bough beds in a mummy sack at -40 should fill a book.

Chapters would have to be added on his role in building the town of Faro and his work in other Yukon communities like Teslin and Haines Junction.

This 92-year-old Yukoner has lived a life of service to others deeply rooted in compassion. Some may settle for a definition of the word compassion as only a feeling of sympathy for others experiencing some misfortune. A closer look at the etymology of the word offers a derivation from two Latin words meaning to suffer together. What motivates someone to willingly take up others’ burdens? Why shoulder the pain of a neighbour or give of our substance not only our excess to another?

Dr. James R. Doty, a professor of Neurosurgery and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, noted in a Huffington Post article from last June that “It is our ability to stand together as a group, to support each other, to help each other, to communicate for mutual understanding, and to co-operate, that has taken our species this far.”

Doty sees scientists and all major world religions concurring: “compassion is good.” He points to research substantiating the finding that social connectedness “is a predictor of longer life, faster recovery from disease, higher levels of happiness and well-being, and a greater sense of purpose and meaning.”

If this is true, why aren’t the Salvation Army’s red kettles or the Whitehorse Food Banks shelves here filled to overflowing? Why do we refuse to recognize how our consumer culture drives a wedge between rich and poor on the planet as it threatens the global environment that sustains everyone?

Ear buds and video games aren’t the only things estranging us from one another and from our physical environment. Stefanie Krasnow and Kalle Lasn published A Warning in the latest Canadian issue of Adbusters. In part it reads: “for 100 years the global economy was an elaborate Ponzi scheme in which living generations ripped off whatever they could from generations yet unborn. Now the externalities are starting to swamp us … dead seas, melting ice caps, polluted aquifers, bleached soils, expanding deserts, lost cultures, fractured communities, emptier lives … we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and all the derivatives, credit swaps and financial pyrotechnics of neoclassical economics won’t save us this time around.”

Krasnow and Lasn finished by stating, “With capitalism’s negligence of ecology, which currently borders on a total death warrant, only an economic paradigm shift can help us revitalize the crucial lifeline that runs through economics and ecology (eco=oikos=home). Only a total paradigm shift in the theoretical foundations of economic science can save us now.”

How will future generations remember us if we fail to truly rediscover a deep compassion not only for other people now sharing this battered planet with us but also our unborn descendants and the whole Earth with all its creatures large and small as well? What does this compassion demand of us today?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.