Because I’m an editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry, I am often forced to see man at his very worst — in those utterly, incomprehensibly dark moments when human beings forget their humanity and surrender to their basest animal instincts. But as I read the poems and songs produced by the victims of Auschwitz and Gaza, most of whom managed to preserve their humanity and compassion despite the terrible suffering they endured, I can also see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
I remain an optimist, because I believe in the power of human compassion. I see it everywhere around me: in my wife’s kindness, in my mother’s love, in my son’s empathy for his friends, and in the lives and examples of people like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Florence Nightingale, Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.
What ended American slavery? Human compassion. Harriet Beecher Stowe felt the suffering of African-American slaves deeply and she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in response. When President Lincoln met her, he said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great big war!” Lincoln had been moved similarly by compassion himself, having seen the cruelties of slavery as a young man. He was quoted as saying that he had always known slavery was wrong. For him this was not an intellectual conclusion but an instantaneous revelation of the heart.
What largely ended abusive child labor in Western nations? Human compassion. Writers like Charles Dickens and William Blake wrote touching accounts of small children being forced to work long, grueling, highly dangerous hours as miners, factory workers and chimney-sweeps. Readers were moved, and before long child labor laws were enacted.
What motivates most doctors, nurses, social workers and good mothers? Human compassion. For every Hitler, for every serial killer, there are many thousands of compassionate human beings who empathize with the suffering of the people Jesus Christ called “the least of these, my brethren.”
What will eventually end war? Human compassion. Singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and John Lennon have charged our imaginations with the idea that if we “give peace a chance,” we can end war. While this may seem impossible today, please keep in mind that not so very long ago men were sacrificing children to the “gods,” taking girls captured in war as sex slaves, and burning “heretics” at the stake over points of religious dogma.
Human culture is constantly changing, and in one major respect it is changing for the better. In the past, world conquerors like Alexander the Great and Napoleon won great acclaim for their “heroics.” But today most of us are much more likely to admire men and women of compassion and peace. If we emulate our new heroes, we will increasingly be walking the path of compassion, which I believe will inevitably lead us to peace. When we decide that the vast suffering produced by war is not in our best interests, we can make war illegal, just as we made slavery and child sacrifice illegal. What we need, more than anything today, is for military superpowers like the U.S. to admit that war creates more problems than it solves, and stop using military power to advance their “national interests” abroad. No one likes a bully, so the U.S. needs to stop bullying other nations into submission and give them time to sort out their internal problems, the same way Americans prefer to sort out theirs, without outside interference.
But what can we do today, personally, while we await the advent of peace? We can practice compassion in our daily lives. My lovely wife Beth is a fan of Ellen DeGeneres, who urges her fans to “be kind to one another.” Beth herself commits what she calls “random acts of kindness” for total strangers, asking them to “pass it on.” And I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama, who has been quoted as saying, “My religion is kindness.”
But most of all, we can teach our children that acting with tolerance and compassion is much better than being bossy, bullying and bellicose. If we take the time to teach young children the advantages of compassion in our schools, churches and at home, the whole world will soon reap the rewards.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.