Reason, Compassion, and The Need for Darn Good Storytellers.

Some weeks ago the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece praising the hardened, noir heros (like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon) who were “moral realists,” who “assume[d] that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself,” apparently in contrast to young enthusiastic activists who are

“bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.”

Bead for Life artisans.

They (and this is a hypothetical ‘they’ because he’s talking in general terms here) “think they can evade politics,” “have little faith in the political process” and “believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.”

He calls this a delusion. Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy appreciates this critique, adding to it a quote from the ethicist Oliver O’Donovan:

“Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering…it is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action. […] it [requires no] independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.”

Of course it’s important to consider what means are most helpful to help. It’s true that ‘helping’ in unhelpful ways can hurt. But I feel that Brooks’ critique is insubstantial (not being rooted in an actual organization, only in imaginary groups of ‘activists’) and that we need compassion every bit as much as–or maybe even more than–reason.

not very rational.

After all we’re not the most reasonable creatures. We’re actually really unreasonable, most of us, which is why we find characters like Spock and Sherlock Holmes amusing oddities.

Here’s a specific example:

Not long ago Tim and I watched this documentary about HIV/AIDS. At one point, top virologists (folks who worked at NIH and WHO, for example) took a trip to South Africa where they spent some time on hospital wards–huge rooms full of dying people. They were already the world’s AIDS experts, but several of them pointed to that point as a turning point for them in their research: they saw people, and were resolved to help them. In the same documentary, former president Bill Clinton talked about walking along the AIDS quilt, seeing the blocks that represented a life lost to AIDS, and resolving to further efforts in the fight.

Something happens when we connect with a good story, and I fear that in denying the validity and importance of the visceral response, we deny an essential part of who God created us to be.

Why do you think organizations like Heifer International and World Vision have gift catalogs and sponsorship programs? Your $30 doesn’t really go straight into paying for some chickens or a child’s lunch program. But assigning that meaning to your money gives it a different quality. It calls out (rightly!) that quality of compassion, and the good folks at these good organizations use it as they see fit.

I don’t see that as a problem.

OK, compassion doesn’t stand alone. It isn’t the final goal.

But it’s a really good place to start.

Do we need people on the Spock end of the spectrum to see that relief and development are run effectively? Sure we do.

But just as much as we need them, we need people–good storytellers!–to help us give a darn.

2 thoughts on “Reason, Compassion, and The Need for Darn Good Storytellers.

  1. Well, with the way you structure your question, of course we need both compassion and reason. It would be silly to argue otherwise, so I’m not sure if anyone is exactly saying otherwise. But maybe.

    It seems to me that there is largely a difference between visceral compassion and sentimental compassion. The latter is a disconnected sentiment for wanting social justice for others but not wanting to get your hands dirty and do the real intimate, and physically present work of compassion. What’s more, to me this sentimental compassion is often accompanied by the mindset of “I/we know what is good or best for you so here’s what you need,” which is an externally imposed and presumptuous imposition of one’s own value system. It’s working from the outside in rather than the inside out. An inside-out approach consists of letting those whom your helping identify their ow needs, desires, passions and coming alongside those and helping them accomplish those things.

    I think we can agree that it is very apparent at how pervasive this disconnected, social consciousness is and how numbing and even destructive it can be. And to your point, real compassion doesn’t start until you meet people face to face and identify with them and begin to share their burdens and their plight.

    Oh and thanks for your blog, I enjoy it! Keep it up!

  2. O’Donovan’s definition of compassion (“Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering”) reminds me of Linda Hunt’s character – Billy Kwan, a news photographer – in The Year of Living Dangerously. At one point Billy is walking the slums of Jakarta with a reporter and sees someone begging. Billy hands over a wad of cash, and the reporter asks whether Billy knows what the person will do with the money. Billy says it doesn’t matter; the person doesn’t have any money and Billy does, so he handed it over.

    I don’t mean to be reckless with what God has entrusted to me, but I think compassionate generosity is a good guide. As much as I admire David Brooks for the experience and insights he can bring to his commentaries, I think he misses that real people are, for example, drinking healthy water because of these compassionate endeavors.

    In fact, jesus showed us how appropriate this was when he fed the crowds. He did not feed the world, nor even all Israel; he didn’t change the government, nor society. He fed the large crowd one meal.


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