Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Compassion & Consequences

"Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have." 
--Marva Collins

This Sunday, my dad would have been 78, so I've been thinking a lot about him over the past week and I've been reflecting on many of the things he taught me (both directly and by example).  I've had some personal struggles and difficult decisions to make lately, and through all of my thinking, my dad's ideas and example have always been in my mind.  So this post will be about those ideas.

When I was very young, probably no more than 10, my dad told me very seriously, "When someone cares about you and means you well, they look you in the eye and they tell you the truth, even if they know it's not what you want to hear.  If they can't do that, for whatever reason, then they aren't looking out for you, no matter what they say.  You have to remember this."

My dad had a very strong sense of responsibility and integrity; over the years, I have very much learned to value and appreciate the strength of character it takes to maintain such qualities.  The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that a sense of moral responsibility is often lost in philosophical generalities.  We know the Golden Rule ("do unto others"), we know about "right" and "wrong," but because those maxims are so abstract, we cannot act with ethical responsibility unless we confront "the face of the other." 

So in a sense, my father's advice was a kind of practical echo of Levinas' philosophical understanding.

My dad believed that words and actions had consequences and that people had to live with the consequences of what they had said or done.  We all make mistakes, but my dad made a distinction between the kinds of people who are willing to own up to their mistakes and accept the consequences that stem from them, and those who own up to their mistakes and believe that's all that should be required of them. 

Unfortunately, words and actions and their effects aren't easily erased.  

Although he was in no way a spiritual man, my dad would often end a story of someone's misdeed or mistake with the comment, "There but for the grace of God go I...".  It was an overt acknowledgment that, under different circumstances, he too could be where the other person currently was, in a state of sadness and difficulty. 

I think this is the essence of compassion.  It is not a willingness to overlook or ignore mistakes or deny their consequences, and it is not a willingness to give everyone a free pass if they simply say they're sorry.  It's a recognition that, when we see people who have done wrong, we should always remind ourselves that we too have the capacity to do wrong, and view their action through that lens.

I read George Eliot's novel Middlemarch while my dad was dying, and there is a scene in it that I particularly associate with my dad.  At one point in the novel, the young and irresponsible Fred Vincy borrows money and Caleb Garth, the father of Mary Garth, the woman Fred is in love with, agrees to guarantee the loan.

Caleb knows that his daughter is in love with Fred, and he believes that Fred is trustworthy and will repay the debt on time.  When he doesn't and the loan comes due, Caleb is forced to pay, depleting his family's already strained finances.

When Fred comes to explain himself, he is full of excuses--he blames the situation, the circumstances, Caleb, society, expensive horses--you name it.  He wants Mary to still think well of him and to believe that he is what he has claimed to be.  He thinks she is being unfair to him.

He tells her, "I am so miserable, Mary--if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me," to which she responds, "There are other things to be more sorry for than that.  But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world: I see enough of that every day."

When Caleb later talks to his daughter, he knows that he will have to do more than simply discuss what has happened.  As a good father, he will need to look his daughter in the eye and tell her something that she doesn't want to hear.

And he does.  He tells her simply, "I'm afraid Fred is not to be trusted.  He means better than he acts, perhaps.  But I should think it a pity for anybody's happiness to be wrapped up in him."

But later in the novel, when a business opportunity comes his way, Caleb takes Fred under his wing.  Fred has suffered the consequences of his actions, but that doesn't mean that he is denied any chance of rebuilding the relationships he has damaged.

He has to learn how to take responsibility for his words and his deeds, instead of blaming others for the dilemmas he has created for himself.  When Fred's actions show his willingness to work and to put others' interests ahead of his own, he finds a new path that leads him back to the people that he has always sincerely loved and cared for.

I think this ending is very much the spirit of my dad's own optimism about people.  It is the fine balance between compassion, character and consequences that we all strive to strike.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."