We had a fascinating opening conversation about Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life at the Lent Group tonight. We were talking about whether compassion is innate or a learned behaviour. It will have important consequences today, we felt, as the welfare state contracts and much institutionalised ‘compassion’ is left to the voluntary sector in the Big Society.
Looking back at the last great surge of voluntary charity, the Victorian era, it is clear that there had to be a hearts-and-minds campaign, partly through media such as Dickens’ novels, but also through the Church. Think of those hymns and carols – such as Good King Wenceslas, published by J.M. Neale in 1853, with the closing words:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Will the Church be as influential now? Or is there a fountain of secular compassion that will fill the gap of meals-on-wheels being cut, and Citizens Advice Bureaux, and day centres, and facilities for the disabled?
The other fascinating topic was why people put their lives at risk – not least, as workers exposed to radiation in the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Is it altruism, or is there a kind of conditioning that makes it ‘second nature’ – as with firefighters, or soldiers? You can understand a parent risking their life to save their child, or a someone doing that for their dearest friend. But we find it worthy of remark and heroic (i.e. not normal) for someone to give their life for a stranger.
And of course, we got on to Phoebe in Friends, and her attempt to find a truly unselfish act. She lets a bee sting her “so it can look cool in front of its bee friends.” She is crestfallen when Joey points out that the bee probably died after it lost its sting in her arm. You can see the clip on YouTube here.