Why do we care so deeply for the child born to Mary and Joseph in a Bethlehem cave and not the millions of other children born into a poverty of one kind or another? Is it because of who he became, or simply because we can only care for one person at a time?
According to “The Arithmetic of Compassion” by professors and researchers Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, our capacity for compassion diminishes when there is more than one to care for: “psychic numbing” takes hold. Their studies reveal a “compassion fade” when one person in need is joined by another, and we are less motivated to help either.
“Pseudoinefficacy” disables donors when it is felt their contributions would be “a drop in the bucket” facing a disaster or pandemic, a study I’ve cited before on this blog. And the “prominence effect” prevents interventions to halt such things as genocides and climate change when competing with our “near-term comforts and conveniences.”
Citing the insights of psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich from their decades-old book New World New Mind, we still have cavemen and cavewomen mentalities, ill-equipped to deal with the complexities and breadth of the world. Ehrlich and Ornstein prophesied we need a “conscious evolution” of our minds to care not only for those nearby but to embrace the world.
Enter spirituality. This is not what any of the experts above suggest, but this is what comes to my mind when they speak of our own evolution toward altruism. Spirituality recognizes our connectedness to all creatures and all creation.
Jesus understood our limitations and taught an ethic of the nearest neighbor, to quote musician Billy Preston, later set to music by Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Love your neighbors as yourself, love your enemies, greet and welcome strangers, visit the sick and imprisoned, proclaim release to the captives, give vision to those who don’t get it, comfort those in mourning, feed those in need, announce God’s common wealth to the poor.
G. K. Chesterton summed up this attitude in Francis of Assisi:
To Francis a human being stays always a person and does not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honored all; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him extraordinary personal power was this: that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never one who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadone was really interested in him or her, in his or her own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that each was being valued and taken seriously and not merely added to the spoil of some social policy or the names of some clerical document. … He treated the whole mob of people as a mob of kings.
I particularly like the ending emphasis on social policy and clerical documents. Whether our goal is social justice or church membership, unless we regard each one uniquely and highly, we will fail.
Henri Nouwen quotes this in his Genesee Diary, writing, “I cannot embrace the world, but God can.”
But it’s not enough to hold the world in our prayers. “GOD CAN’T FIX THIS,” New York’s Daily News reminded us in its headline after the recent mass shooting in California.
Our words, thoughts, and prayers are not enough.
Tradition has it that Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”
“On earth Christ has no body but [our] own,” Teresa of Avila reminded us.
The holiest purpose of prayer, of meditation, of spirituality is that it fixes US.
It helps us evolve to embrace the world. Now our nearest neighbor is also in the news and on the internet. Our spirituality must keep up with our technology.
The Christmas story is that God wants to save the world, not just you and me and our neighbors. And we are to be, to paraphrase Francis, instruments of God’s peace on earth and goodwill to all. That should be the measure of our every act.
A reading for Christmas: Mohammad’s Child
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