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Horror In Hartford... and the Healing of Karen Armstrong
by Alexander Green

 

Friday, June 06, 2008

 

 

 

Dear Reader,

Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was one of history's great pessimists.

His view of life is unremittingly dark. Yet even the old crapehanger himself believed that we are ultimately redeemed by our empathy for our fellow man.

In his essay "On the Foundations of Morality," published in 1839, Schopenhauer wrote, "How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to action? ... This is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation, and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard-hearted and self-interested. Examples appear every day before our eyes of instant responses in kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone whom he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than that the other is in need and peril in his life."

I'm still trying to square these words - which strike most of us as instinctively true - with what happened to Angel Arce Torres in Hartford, CT this week.

As The Associated Press reported this morning, "A 78-year-old man is tossed like a rag doll by a hit-and-run driver and lies motionless on a busy street as car after car goes by. Pedestrians gawk but do nothing. One driver stops but then pulls back into traffic. A man on a scooter circles the victim before zipping away. The chilling scene - captured on video by a streetlight surveillance camera - has touched off a round of soul-searching in Hartford, with the capital city's biggest newspaper blaring 'SO INHUMANE' on the front page and the police chief lamenting: 'We no longer have a moral compass.'"

Although it was initially reported that onlookers didn't even bother to call for help, it has since been discovered that four people did dial 911 shortly after the accident.

Still, Torres - who at last report was alive but in critical condition at Hartford Hospital - was not only left for dead by the perpetrator, but left unattended by dozens of passers-by.

Over the last 24 hours, hundreds in the national media have expressed outrage. It's not my intention here to pile on. Nor do I blame Hartford. If this could happen in one city it could happen in another, perhaps many others.

However, I would like to make a simple observation. Without compassion, there really isn't much to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

If we're deaf and blind to the suffering of those around us, what is the value of language, intelligence, culture or technology? Without compassion, what is left to redeem us?

Genuine compassion is not about thinking compassionate thoughts. It means taking action.

Not just in times of crisis - or during a tragedy like the one in Hartford this week - but every day. After all, there is plenty of suffering in the world right now. We have only to act.

If you haven't seen it, I strongly suggest that you take a few minutes to watch scholar Karen Armstrong's acceptance speech after receiving the TED prize in February. (The annual TED conference is where the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers are challenged to give the talk of their lives - in 18 minutes or less.) Just click here.

In her talk, Armstrong argues that religion is not about believing certain things. "Religion," she says, "is about behaving differently... And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action: you only understand them when you put them into practice."

I think this is true. You don't have to hold the "right" religious viewpoint - or any religious viewpoint - to be compassionate. You need only be a person of conscience.

So believe what you will. But recognize that we all have a choice. We can act compassionately... or we can be a paler version of the bystanders in Hartford this week.

The choice is ours.

 

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