There are two basic emotions: love and fear. Every feeling in between is a variation on one of those fundamental impulses. When we talk about compassion we are talking about love. We are talking about a particular kind of love that is grounded, open, & present. Cornell West is famous for saying that “Justice is what Love looks like in public,” and I think compassion is what love looks like without fear.
We live in a society based on fear. And particularly when it comes to our system of crime and punishment the model is fear & control.
The first time I visited a prison, I was afraid. I was afraid because I thought there were people there who could hurt me. People who had committed crimes, and people who guarded them, who had guns and watched my every move. I was afraid when they asked me to go through security checkpoints where they looked inside my mouth, under my hair, at the bottoms of my feet...my body was controlled, watched. And I walked into a visiting room to visit someone I didn’t know, a man who had been in prison for over 20 years.
But even while I was afraid, I felt a sense of love in my heart, a sense of compassion. I knew that I was reaching out to someone who felt isolated, and who had applied to participate in this mentoring program as part of his efforts to secure his college degree while incarcerated. I knew this was someone who wanted connection and transformation.
What is powerful about the work I have been able to participate in as a volunteer visiting prisons is that unlikely sense of connection: a connection that provides an alternative to the fear-based system. By visiting imprisoned men and women and developing relationships with them we volunteers are embracing a compassion model. A love model, rather than a fear model.
Showing compassion is one way to help another person to flourish by creating the conditions that evoke the best in us as humans. Love and fear are both natural. But fear is closed, it is clenched, protective. Compassion is open & bold, and leaves space for creativity, growth, and change.
Along with the rest of my team, I currently visit a man named Ron who is in prison in Norfolk, Mass. He is an amazingly compassionate and articulate man, and I wish he were presenting here on this panel. Since he can’t be here, I want to share directly from him. He and I had a conversation that really moved me, and that I have been thinking about ever since. He told me about a program that he had seen on television about doctors and nurses who were treating people with benign facial tumors who had been abandoned by social stigma for their condition, kicked out of their homes and forced to forage for food in the trash at night. A nurse who they interviewed for the program described the feeling of reaching out to these individuals and simply expressing “I see you”--she wept and said that this moment of human connection was the beginning of the healing, before any actual treatment. Ron wept, too, when he saw this, and felt how much he related to a sense of being an outsider, of being marginalized by social stigma. He felt such compassion for the suffering he saw on the television, and it brought home for him how much he wants to work to touch those who are the margins: to be able to “see them” and embrace them in their humanity. As he wrote in one of his letters: “My entire desire is to be able to touch those society turns its back on, such as the homeless, ex-prisoners, the elderly shut away in awful nursing homes with no family, kids in foster care... I know what it is to lose everything and have no one...However, now I see my reason for living is to impact people’s lives.”
As a nation, we imprison over 6 million people, more people than any other country in the world. Our incarceration system is based on fear and isolation, and does not lead to change. 63% of those who are released from prison eventually commit another crime and return to the prison system. Partakers, the organization that I work with as a prison volunteer, has been working with Massachusetts prisons for 15 years, and in that time, only 2 individuals in the program have returned to prison. The power of compassion is at the heart of that striking difference.
When I entered the prison for the first time, I was afraid. In many ways, I still am. And yet it is compassion which draws me back time after time. Compassion is bold and courageous. It pushes us out of our protective fear, and into an openness to the world. I show up time after time to do the unglamorous work of sitting and talking with an incarcerated stranger in hard plastic chairs in a prison visiting room. And yet the results are powerful. Ronald recently wrote to me: “I am beyond grateful for your sacrifice and empathy and it is of more value to me than 5 million dollars. After having my life twice ripped apart...and over decades losing everything and everyone I ever cared about, your act of kindness restores and creates anew a belief that the imprint of God’s goodness and love resides in us all. So, thank you.”
Although Ron is thanking me in this letter, this is not because of me, or anything special that I do. It’s also not only about the specificity of prison. Ron’s statement is about the power of human connection, a power that we all have for one another, and which is alive in the act of loving. Compassion is practicing love without fear, reaching across that which divides us in society. There are so many ways in which we separate ourselves from others, choosing fear over love, but we are all innately capable of fearlessness, of courage. How do you show compassion in your lives? How do you show up with courage? Where is love calling you?