Where Did The Compassion Go?
2006 © John Renesch
I’m not sure when we lost it but it was during my watch as a U.S. citizen. I’m in my late 60s and I remember World War II, the advent of credit cards, television and touch-tone phones, long before the co-called Technology Age. Being a fourth generation Californian, I was “Americanized by my family, school and the movies.
I remember when Americans were one of the most compassionate people in the world, willing to go to the far corners of the globe to help, send money, Care Packages, food and even military help if we thought it was having a humanitarian benefit. We felt so fortunate to be citizens of this great nation and so compassionate for those who were hurting in some way. Maybe it was because of our immigrant roots. But we cared about the rest of the world.
But it got off track someplace. And it happened on my watch. It happened sometime between my growing up and becoming a senior citizen. And it seems to be getting much worse, much faster!
We have become far less generous that we were only a generation or so back. We are nowhere close to being the most generous country when it comes to foreign aid. But we’re the richest country! We have the strongest military but we only commit troops now “to protect our interests.” Committing troops nowadays is largely to impose our own ideals on others. We’ve become ardent crusaders for The American Way instead of caring helpers and we all know what horrible consequences occur when ardent crusaders are fervently fighting for their cause.
Our commitment to help fight genocide withered immediately in the Sudan when a few of our soldiers was killed. We earned a reputation with the evil doers in the world as the country that has little stomach for fatalities from our own ranks. But this sensitivity has become reserved for Americans, not citizens of other countries. We do not seem to care about casualties from other countries. In recent years, we seem incredibly insensitive to the people who we kill, even accidentally, as long as they are not “Americans.”
The latest ghastly mistake resulting in the slaughter of 17 Iraqis has been a mere news item in recent days but I don’t detect any compassion, regret or even ownership for this tragedy. I can only presume that it is because there wasn’t an American killed in the attack.
One of the 2000 candidates for U.S. presidency ran his campaign on a platform of “compassionate conservativism” – an acknowledgement as to just how uncompassionate we had become. The compassionate thing worked. He ended up in the White House. While we haven’t seen much true compassion from the Washington since that election, it is a diversion for us to point the finger. “We the people” are the ones who’ve lost our ability to feel compassion for others. We the people are allowing our media and our leadership to take such a self-centered, unfeeling attitude toward the rest of the world. Instead of blaming our leaders or our media we need to exam our own hearts and see just how self-centered and callous we may be becoming in our rush for material wealth, technology fixes and our obsession with our own busy lives.
When people stop feeling in one area the deadening progresses. Once the heart starts shutting down or numbing out it spreads contagiously. In war we learn how to numb out the horrid impact our actions are having on others. The “enemy” becomes a demon animal or an object. Objectifying those we kill is a common way that soldiers numb themselves so they can continue functioning in battle. One way Americans do this is by “remote killing” – causing death and destruction with minimum risk to our military personnel. This kind of “clean killing” allows the killers to maintain that insulating distance and remain emotionally aloof from recognizing the full impact of what they’ve done.
The downside of this clinical approach to killing people is that there’s no feedback. Remember the B-29 airmen of World War II who firebombed Tokyo and were shocked when they actually had feedback of the impact, something they were unused to because they were well above the ground? The conflagration over Tokyo was so fierce they could actually smell the human flesh burning, even at their high altitudes!
If we continue to kill as if the enemy is an image in a video game, we will forget what taking a life is like. We will forget what compassion feels like. Then we’ll forget what sorrow feels like. Then we will have forgotten what its like to be human.
John Renesch is a San Francisco businessman-turned-futurist. His background includes over thirty years experience as a business owner, CEO and Managing Director. He edited a series of forward-thinking business anthologies that included the original writings of over 300 visionaries from industry, business academia, and the professional communities. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. He’s received praise as a business/social seer. Warren Bennis, best-selling author of leadership books for nearly twenty years, calls John “a wise elder who shines with wisdom.” Stanford School of Business’ Michael Ray calls him “a beacon lighting the way to a new paradigm.” The Futurist magazine calls him a “business visionary.” For more information about his work visit his website – www.Renesch.com . To contact him call 415-437-6974.