Burch: The power of human compassion

Friday, April 13, 2012 at 10:23am
By Michael R. Burch

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.

58 Comments on this post:

By: yogiman on 4/16/12 at 9:03


I'll admit I'm stupid in many ways in using a computer. They didn't have them in my early years and I'll admit I haven't learned to use it as well as you and your fellow posters ridiculing me on this site. Hell, my grandchildren made me look like a damn fool on it while they are here last week. But then, they have been taught on it for several years now. All I know, I taught myself. And I'll admit, I still have a lot to learn... if I ever can.

But considering the government, I'll argue with you all the way to the slop jar they're taking us with the consent of people like you and your fellow posters.

It was after I can on this site I learned there was a different language using a computer. Ah yea, the times are a changing.

I honestly feel sorry for your children and their future going into the socialist society as we're headed today.

By: gdiafante on 4/16/12 at 9:08

Yogi, you know how to use a computer well enough to forward ridiculous chain emails and cite completely asinine conspiracy websites, I'm sure you can take a few seconds to google seat belt laws.

And, honestly, if you can't differentiate between federal and state laws, you may not be the best authority to discuss Socialism. You sure as hell don't know very much about the Constitution.

By: Mike Burch on 4/16/12 at 9:25


I don't want to join your bashers. I think you're a great comic, pretending to believe sheer nonsense for the benefit of your audience. Kind of like the actor who played Gilligan, for laughs.

Even if Obama is an illegal alien, still he's better than the Three Stooges, so I say "Thank God for intelligent Kenyans!"

Perhaps if we replaced all the right-wing bigots with Kenyans, we could afford universal healthcare.


By: yogiman on 4/16/12 at 10:18


I just consider the source on all negative comments and ignore them. But for you to comment "Even if Obama is an illegal alien, still he's better that the three stooges, so I say "Thank God for intellectual Kenyans"" indicates to me your ignorance to the Constitution of our nation.

By: Moonglow1 on 4/16/12 at 11:01


Yogi, the CIA, NSA, FBI, The Military, The Pentagon, the Generals!!! Are they taking orders from our President, the Illegal Alien? Wow!!! If this is the case, then the whole country is going down. Perhaps Mr. Obama is a spy from Africa, an interloper who just happened to win an election and become the most powerful man in the world.

I guess we cannot rely on the US government agencies to protect us from Mr. Obama, the current President.

You mentioned my ignorance a few days ago when I said that the Romney clan including his grandfather left the USA for Mexico because they were in violation of US law. Why is Romney fit to be President when his family does not believe in following the laws of the United States?
Since Romney is the biggest flip flopper the world has even known, who can believe anything he says. Are you absolutely certain he was born in the USA or was it Mexico? Viva la Mexico!!!! Mormon's in Mexico, polygamy in action. Romney's family is not welcome in the USA.

So in summary, please address the inaction of the USA intelligence community's inaction regarding Mr. Obama, the alien.

By: Moonglow1 on 4/16/12 at 11:04

Moonglow1 EDIT ERROR

"So in summary, please address the inaction of the USA intelligence community's inaction regarding Mr. Obama, the alien."

I meant to say:

Yogi, so in summary, please address the inaction of the USA's intelligence community to address the issue of Mr. Obama, the alien."

By: brrrrk on 4/16/12 at 11:23

Mike Burch said

"Anyone who has read the Bible honestly....."

Ah, and therein lies the rub.

By: Mike Burch on 4/16/12 at 11:48


I should have said that you are a comic genius, like Chevy Chase pretending not to be able to stand upright while playing Gerald Ford.

An intelligent person has to know that President Obama (whether American, Kenyan or Martian) is much more qualified to be President than people like Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, who want to fight another unwinnable war with Iran, sent women back to the stone age, and destroy the earth's environment by ignoring the reality of global warming.

What good is it to defend the Constitution, if it means starting World War III, returning to the dark ages, and eventually ending life on earth?

If you are an intelligent person, you must know these things. Therefore I have to assume that this is an elaborate charade for our entertainment and enlightenment. By pretending to put the Constitution above life and sanity, you are teaching us the more important values, through irony.