Friday, April 9, 2010

Defining Compassion

One of my favorite summer activities is visiting the Davis Farmer’s Market on a Wednesday night. If you’re not familiar with the town of Davis, it is home to the University of California Davis; it is a college town with a very liberal, bohemian flavor. Davis is the kind of place where the residents have built a special tunnel for the frogs, solely to prevent the little creatures from being run over by passing cars. To me, that story sums up Davis in a nutshell.

Their Farmer’s Market is spectacular, offering everything from locally grown produce to bakery items to free-range chicken eggs, even seafood and free-range meats. One can browse the market, grab some dinner one of the many ethnic food stands, and lounge in the park while local musical groups put on free concerts (on Wednesday nights). The people-watching is fascinating and when the weather is warm and mild, it is a recipe for bliss.

One day last summer, my husband and I were doing just this, polishing off top-notch hot dogs and lemonade on a park bench while a big band played jazzy tunes and an older couple a few feet in front of us practiced their swing dancing moves together. (Adorable!) Unexpectedly, a young man (probably a student) approached us and said he was conducting research and asked each of us to write down in his notebook our definition of the word "compassion". We accommodate this request, and I continued to think about the encounter long after he had moved on to speak with other park-goers.

I wonder what the true nature of his experiment was. Was he seeking to learn the meaning of compassion? Or was his real intent to make people reflect on the meaning of compassion, thus displaying more kindness in their treatment of their fellow men?

I can't remember what I wrote at that time, but I like some of the ideas from the Charter for Compassion, where over 43,000 people have affirmed that what the world needs most at this time is (you guessed it) compassion. The charter reads, in part:

"The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect."

If you would like to add your name to the charter, feel free! You’ll be joining the likes of the Dalai Lama, Meg Ryan, and leaders from all religious traditions. As Ghandi once stated: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

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