Ways of Seeing, Johanna Nichols: Charter for Compassion offers hope

I love walking outside. It is my favorite form of exercise, but I have a few ground rules. The temperature has to be minimum 20 degrees, with no wind, and it can’t be icy or driving rain. When the weather fails the test, I put on music and stretch and dance. My current favorite is the soulful, acoustic album “Temple at Midnight” by Miten.
A song on that album brings Sam Fogel to mind. Picture a small elderly man with white hair and glasses walking his two little dogs along North Pleasant Street. A member of several local religious communities, Sam’s deepest concern was for the survival of humanity. He developed the term “humanitism” for his theory of what the world needed.
Then, he came upon the Charter for Compassion. Their website describes its origin this way: On February 28, 2008 acclaimed scholar and bestselling author Karen Armstrong received the TED Prize and made a wish — to help create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion. After much work and the contribution of thousands of people the Charter was unveiled to the world on Nov. 12, 2009.
Here is an excerpt from the final 312-word document: “Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path . . . to a peaceful global community.”
I wondered what became of the Charter of Compassion. Research led me to a website that would please Sam, who is no longer with us. Following its unveiling, an organization was formed with the mission “to bring to life the principles articulated in the Charter of Compassion through concrete, practical action in a myriad of sectors.”
At the heart of its work is its Campaign for Compassionate Communities. Charter for Compassion International is participating with communities in 50 countries. The Vermont communities of Brattleboro and South Burlington are on the extensive list on the website.
Affirming the Charter of Compassion means that a community has identified issues on which they are working and has committed to a multi-year action plan to bring compassion to life in “practical, specific ways through compassion-driven actions — in neighborhoods, businesses, schools and colleges, healthcare, the arts, local government, peace groups, environmental advocacy groups and faith congregations.”
The organization encourages any individual, group or organization that recognizes the need for greater compassion in a community to begin the process. They recommend that the process be designed and carried out by a diverse and inclusive coalition of people so that all voices within the community are heard, and the significant issues are addressed.
“Humaniversal” — a song on Miten’s album — is a dancing prayer in which Miten includes you, me, the people of India, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama who “speaks of love and compassion even towards his enemy.” As I move to this song, I think how much Sam would like the combination of the words humanity and universal. Sam’s devotion to compassion continues to resonate within me two years after his death.
The compassionate messages in Miten’s songs make me feel better — they help me to get a grip so that I can begin to turn my anxiety about the issues facing our communities, Vermont, the country, and the global community into positive action.
We are living in a time when there is deep skepticism of the institutions in our society. We need to overcome this, but how? There’s too much blame and too little sympathy. There’s too much pessimism and too little trust. Too much despair that nothing can be done — that one’s choices have no effect on the outcomes in one’s life.
I wonder how we might communicate with each other about what is going right and what is going wrong in community life, to celebrate what is right and to address what is wrong in “practical, specific ways through compassion-driven actions.” I wonder how we might begin to take seriously our pledge to one nation, indivisible. Maybe human kindness is our best hope.
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, writer, and Unitarian Universalist minister emerita. She welcomes responses to these columns at [email protected].

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