Compassion: A Characteristic that Defines Humanity, Not a Political Affiliation
By Ande and Chris Romano Schmitt (with a lot of help from our kids)
Our family likes to explore things together. It’s fun. We recently purchased a large Christmas tree farm in upstate New York, and we enjoy walking the fields and woods, discovering the many footprints of our deer, coyote and black bear neighbors. As we walk, we undoubtedly talk, too. Lately, it seems we are always discussing how we feel about the possibility of a Trump Presidency and what it means for the future of our country.
Our family supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election and the values of inclusion, tolerance and “Stronger Together”. With the shocking Trump win of the Electoral College and the possibility of an impending Trump presidency, we have been compelled to try to understand how Trump won, who supports his hateful, self-centered ideologies, and why his supporters relate to this way of thinking. So, as we read the many news articles on various media outlets which chronicle the past and present unconscionable actions and rhetoric of Donald Trump and his proposed Presidential administration, some of which violate norms of human decency, and some of which violate human rights long established by U.S. law and upheld by the Supreme Court, together with the reports of Trump’s clear conflict of interest with respect to his business empire and domestic and international relations, we are dismayed beyond belief. It is hard for our family to understand why Trump and his supporters have such blatant disregard for human rights, whether it be their misogynist attitudes toward women as sexual objects, their xenophobic fears of all Muslims, their strange “doth protest too much” hateful fascination with homosexual activity, or their desire to wall-off whom they believe to be the “rapists” and murderous hordes attempting to descend upon us from Mexico. Our family thinks, talks and acts differently than Trump and his supporters. We are honestly trying to understand how anyone could support such a person with these ideologies (even if they don’t think Trump really believes these things). But, since we don’t understand, we try to look insightfully at ourselves as a way to comprehend Trump’s words and actions, and to figure out for ourselves how to proceed.
We are a highly-functioning family — a family that understands and compromises with each other’s needs and desires. We try to align our family’s values of truth, self-awareness and conscientiousness with our interactions in our family and with others. We also study other cultures and beliefs to ensure that we have a well-rounded understanding of the world and our place in it. We value the study of these other cultures because this allows us the opportunity to think, evaluate, interpret and decide how best to live in this world as a family that lives in truth. We take time to listen to each other; we actively listen to concerns and needs of each member of the family, kids and adults alike. We go to great lengths to ensure that compromise can be reached when there are conflicts. As our family discussed the present problems and issues surrounding the proposed Trump administration, we came to realize that Trump, his proposed administration and his supporters have a fundamental lack of something so necessary to democracy, so vital to human life itself. Trump and all he represents have absolutely no compassion.
Our family looked up the definition of “compassion”, and we learned that it literally means “with emotion”, or, to put it in a more applied context, “to feel with”. This makes sense to us because, as we talk and listen to each other’s many needs and concerns, we often need to look within ourselves and our own deep feelings in order to truly understand how the other feels. In this way, we are “feeling with” each other. As our kids navigate the many pitfalls of growing up, we, the parents, often need to re-engage with our own long-forgotten feelings of the past when we were the kids’ age. We need to remember what it felt like to be a kid and to have the needs of a kid — to be validated, to be heard, to be understood, to feel important, to want hugs and love and a safe place to be ourselves. We need to remember how important it was for us to have the adults in our lives clearly act as adults and not needy kids; to provide the proper structure and the loving, appropriate channeling of our talents and emotions into productive avenues that could bolster our self confidence. And, when we remember what we wanted as a kid and what our feelings were, we can then understand our own kids’ needs; we can feel empathetically with them and help them to understand that they are normal, living beings experiencing the normal, existential angst of life! This compassion is the bedrock of our family’s success and happiness.
Our family is filled with four smart, creative and needy individuals. We have conflict; it’s inevitable, and it’s normal. But how we deal with that conflict is what truly defines us as a great family. Zoë just turned 14 and loves to craft. She’s an incredible artisan. She fashions everything from sewing and knitting clothes, painting and drawing pictures and creating doll-sized amusement parks, to crafting clever card games, writing moody poetry and concocting premium pasta dinner delectables. Zach is 12 and loves everything baseball. He can play just about every position phenomenally well, especially center field, where he runs down fly balls that would make Odubel Herrera weep with envy. He can switch hit; he is right-handed, but insists on perfecting his left-handed pitching for fun. Zach likes inventing new baseball pitches — including “The Fingernail Pitch”, where he throws the ball with such a confounding path to the plate that the batter appears to be swatting at a fly.
Both Zoë and Zach are very good at the things that they like to do, and they spend a lot of time engaged in their respective hobbies of choice. But, since Zoë and Zach also enjoy spending time together, in the past, a conflict continually occurred when they couldn’t decide which activity to do together. Zoë couldn’t understand why Zach wouldn’t want to craft with her all day long; and Zach couldn’t understand why Zoë wouldn’t want to throw baseballs with him all day long. So, as a family, we identified this as a problem, and we decided it was essential to talk about the problem. In our conversation, we all listened to each other explain why his or her activity was important and meaningful to each person. We said things like, “If your activity is important to you, can you see how the other activity is equally important to the other person?” Put in that context, both Zoë and Zach quickly were able to understand the other’s point of view.
Next, we thought of ways for Zoë and Zach to share in each other’s activities. For example, Zach spent time teaching Zoë how to throw a baseball with accuracy and distance. Zoë spent time teaching Zach how to knit. Now, Zoë loves to throw baseballs to Zach, and Zach is very proud that he can knit. Furthermore, Zoë says that her newfound ability to throw a baseball helps her to feel really good about herself. She says that it gets her out of her “crazy, nutty, teenage girl head” and helps her to focus better when she crafts. Zach says something very similar. He says that, when knitting, he needs to envision the “whole project” in order to be able to successfully complete each detail. This creative envisioning, he says, helps him with baseball by allowing him to creatively anticipate the “whole play” that is happening in front of him so that he can make immediate judgments and execute the best play possible. We asked the kids if participating in the other kid’s activity has in any way taken away from their own love and ability to engage in their own activity. They laughed and said, “No way!” Zoë and Zach each said that, not only do they still identify themselves as a Creative Crafter and Baseball Cracker Jack respectively, but that they love their chosen activities even more so.
How simple for a family with two kids, one might say. What about a country of 325 million with needs and concerns ranging from everything having to do with the fear of limited jobs and resources, national and personal security, climate change and environmental concerns, human rights and equality, political conflict and whether the country is going in the right direction for our children’s futures? But, is it really all that different from a family with needs trying to express those needs in order to live? Isn’t it inevitable and normal in a country of souls to have needs, too, and to express those needs? And, isn’t it just as normal to have conflict arise as a result? But, just as in our family, what makes America’s family great is how we deal with that conflict. The very foundation of our American democracy was built on endless debate, careful listening and respectful consideration of the many points of view. And, as we close our eyes and we picture the feuding founding fathers, we can hear the words of Patrick Henry so poignantly capture the scene of America’s miraculous birth: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Compassion is at the very heart of this statement; it is the fundamental knowing that someone else might have another point of view, and that someone else has every human decent right to feel a certain way and to express that opinion. Put simply, if you can feel a certain way, so can someone else feel a different way. This is not Democrat. This is not Republican. This is human.
Take the current issue of the conflict between the Dakota Access Pipe Line (in which Trump owns stock, by the way) and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. One side sees the pipeline as much-needed progress toward energy self-sufficiency, while the other sees the pipeline as infringing on their sacred tribal lands and threatening the safety of their water supply. In our family, because we recognize the value of all members, no one has the right to impose his or her rights at the expense of another. If someone’s desire to do or have something interferes with someone else’s right to have or do something, then that first person no longer has the right to do or have that something. Period. As a compassionate family, we would need to talk — and talk and talk — until a compromise could be agreed upon in which all members are satisfied. This takes time, commitment and, above all, compassion. We think creatively and explore many options. We believe that there can and will be a solution that works for everyone, even if we can’t see it right away. We think the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was correct in not granting an easement to the pipeline company as this issue is further assessed and debated to ensure that the best energy solution is planned, designed and implemented.
As a family, we are confused by the rising trend of “nationalism” in America and why so many Americans feel so threatened by other American’s way of life. We read articles about politics in European countries and the equally rising far right trend of the fear of losing their national identities. As a family, as Americans, we do not believe that allowing others to express their opinions and to live their lives in the way that makes sense to them somehow takes away from our own identity. Yes, we understand the threat of terrorism (both internal and external) and the economic problems associated with jobs being outsourced overseas. These are big problems that have a direct impact on our family’s lives as well as many other Americans. But how our family approaches these problems is so vastly different than those who embrace the “nationalism” solution. To us, the “nationalism” approach seems like a false pride masking fear. To us, until we are able to look honestly at those fears and their real, identifiable sources, we cannot even begin to seek real solutions. All of this requires, as its base of understanding, a profound inclusion of compassion. Various groups representing the myriad of ethnic, religious and cultural diversities that make up each nation (including America) need to have a much more engaging, productive and compassionate dialogue about the benefits of multi-cultural societies and how that enhances our own cultural identities.
Sometimes, compassion can best be understood through a conversation with a young teenager struggling to understand what the world is all about and trying to find her or his place within it. Young teen years are amazing; living through these precious moments in our developmental lives is like witnessing an opening gateway to the workings of the universe. This awakening begins to unfold as a young teen really starts to understand that she or he has a legitimate choice — a conscious choice about how to think, feel, behave, act — and that, furthermore, that choice has an effect, not just on her or his own self but on others as well. And as we, the parents, talk to our own young teen and tween as they struggle for a feeling of control of their lives, we see how important it is for us to lovingly guide our kids toward that understanding of just how powerful they really are. As our daughter looks at her own body and isn’t sure if she looks “ok”, as our son wonders about being a male and having emotions, we encourage them both always to be exactly who they are — with courage and conviction. In this way, and only in this way, can they truly know themselves — without the developmental blocks of unresolved, unconscious pain. And, when they lovingly know themselves, with all of their very own feelings and desires, strengths and shortcomings, then they can think about the feelings and desires, strengths and shortcomings of others, too. And it is within this kind of environment, that real compassion begins to sprout and grow. With this compassion, they not only can accept themselves, but they can accept others as well.
As parents watching this miracle unfold within our own children, we can’t help but wonder what has gone so terribly wrong with our country that so many citizens seem to be blocked from this very human trait of compassion — a trait that, society likes to believe, often separates us from other life forms and sets us apart as a higher order species. Our family looks specifically at Donald Trump, and we see someone in so much developmentally-stymied, emotionally-blocked anguish that he just cannot see anyone beyond himself. In this sense, he is practically inhuman as he acts in his manner of self-centered narcissism, blatantly threatening to violate human rights that have been established by people performing back-breaking work over decades and centuries before him. Then there are the people who voted for Trump. To us, they seem so lacking in their own belief to be able to make the changes they want to see in their lives. Yet, they are so desperate for these changes that they handed over their own power to a charlatan posing as a “down-home” father figure in a red baseball cap. And what about the GOP? So many Republican leaders and members of Trump’s proposed cabinet seem completely incapable of even acknowledging that any other citizens have any rights to exist in any way other than what they dictate. Native Americans and supporters voicing their very real concerns over the environmental impact of a pipeline are called “criminals” by them. Muslims practicing their religious beliefs are called “terrorists”. Average Americans demonstrating their concerns about having a President who supports misogynistic, xenophobic, racist and despotic ideologies are labeled as “professional protestors”.
We talk about the universe a lot these days, especially since the kids have discovered the original Star Trek from the 1960s on the MeTV network. And, even though Captain Kirk, according to our daughter, is sooooooo cute, the show’s message of contemplating our own humanity has become the focus of our learning these days, especially in light of the very troubled state of American and worldwide notions of humanity and lack of compassion. Last week, we watched the episode called Arena in which a Federation outpost is destroyed by some alien invaders. Captain Kirk is incensed, and orders his crew to prepare to overtake the alien vessel and destroy all aboard. Suddenly, the starship (as well as the alien craft) find themselves stopped by a more advanced civilization which abhors violence. The advanced civilization beams Captain Kirk to a planet’s surface along with the captain of the other ship, who is a reptilian-looking alien known as the Gorn. Their instructions are to fight to the death, with the winner being allowed to leave with his spacecraft, and the loser’s ship being completely destroyed. It wasn’t looking too good for Captain Kirk. The Gorn captain was infinitely stronger than he. Captain Kirk needed to use his thinking ability to outsmart the Gorn leader, which he did by creating an explosive device that wounded the Gorn. As Captain Kirk approached the wounded and vulnerable Gorn leader in order to finish him off, he realized that, perhaps he wasn’t considering the entire story of the Gorn’s attack of the Federation outpost. He realized that the Gorn may have been there first and that the Federation outpost was seen to the Gorn as a threat, and that the Gorn simply were defending themselves. Captain Kirk did not kill the Gorn leader, but instead, he called to the leaders of the advanced civilization to end the competition; he will not kill his opponent. A member of the advanced civilization then appears to Kirk and tells him that they are very impressed that he has shown mercy to an opponent who surely would have destroyed him. The advanced civilization tells Kirk that, although they believe his kind to be half savage, there is also hope for his human species.
The take home message of this Star Trek episode for us was we, as humans, need to understand that we certainly cannot insist that we always know what the needs or the circumstances are of others; and therefore, we need to take the time to listen to what the other person’s values, needs, concerns, desires might be. It’s the only way we can survive. To be clear, this is not about “coastal elites” trying to impose their elitist will upon middle America. This is about human compassion which transcends all political and geographic boundaries. In addition, this need for compassion applies not only to our human species, but to our planet and all the living beings that have needs just like ours — to have resources, to procreate, to survive, to live. This is not a Democratic, liberal or “elitist” principle, as Republicans, far-righters or even the average Trump-supporter continually claims. Rather, this is a human principle that applies to all of us. Everyone benefits from compassion. Compassion simply is not associated with a political ideology. Compassion, given and received, is good for everyone.
Our family is deeply disturbed by the hateful ideologies of Trump and his supporters, as so often stated during the campaign and since the election. Trump has repeatedly stated his intentions to build a wall along the Mexican border, repeal the Affordable Care Act, repeal Roe v. Wade, deport illegal immigrants, prevent Muslims from entering the country and support attitudes of a rape culture. These words are incredibly hurtful, terrifying and unacceptable to any civilized being. These words were spoken by Trump, recorded on tape and reported to the American public without any question as to his intentions. The American public should have the confidence that presidential candidates are presenting a platform upon which they intend to serve. If Trump says these things, we must believe that he intends to do these things. Since the election, our family has been reading accounts of Trump supporters spouting that “liberals should just lighten up” and accept Trump as the next President because Trump didn’t really mean all those awful, horrible things he said. Trump supporters have been quoted as saying that they didn’t believe Trump really would do anything, like build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It has been reported this week that, when Donald Trump’s son, Eric, was told by a Muslim seated next to him on an airplane that he would never, “do that Muslim ID thing,” Eric Trump said, “Come on, man, don’t believe everything you read, we’re not going to do that.” It is simply not possible to engage in any clear and compassionate dialogue without even knowing what is the truth. And, conversely, attempts to obfuscate the dialogue are counter to what is inherently good in any human relations.
What, if not someone’s words and actions, really does matter in deciding the character of another person, let alone who will become the President of the United States? Even if Trump really didn’t “mean” any of the ideologies espoused during his political campaign, and even if, through some alternate-universe- inspired apocalypse, his chosen cabinet members don’t really “mean” to chainsaw the trunk of democratic tradition, the fact is that Trump, with all of his campaign words and actions, really was voted into office by some of (not even a majority of) the American people; whether he means it or not, Trump’s words and actions are so completely devoid of any compassion that any decent, civilized human being should be so appalled by him that he never would be considered as a viable Presidential candidate. But, since he is now poised to take office, what can this possibly say about our society? Are we, as Americans, completely devoid of compassion? Can we even be considered a decent civilization under a Trump presidency?
Equally confounding is that female Trump supporters seem to have little to no care whatsoever about Trump’s abusive words and actions toward women. Our family has read interviews with Trump-supporting women, and they clearly dismiss any regard for Trump’s attitudes toward women as being a problem enough for them to not vote for him. We honestly do not understand this. We wonder about the possibility that these women must be so devoid of compassion for themselves that they don’t even know that they are not receiving the respect they deserve from their men. Do they live in a microcosm of society in which women routinely are so unvalued that they are not even capable of recognizing that Trump’s words and actions are dehumanizing? In the society of today that our family understands, these thoughts are not acceptable to women and men alike. As we understand through our own experience, compassion begins with a true love and respect for yourself; and without that, it is impossible to expect others to be compassionate toward you. As a family, we look at the deteriorating condition of the American Family, and we wonder the effect this has had on women. Our society is set up today so that women have to work in order to help pay for the ever-increasing price of everything. Working by no means relieves women of the burden of the child care responsibility that primarily still falls on their shoulders. In addition, married men and women grow further and further apart as they engage in their separate activities, often ending in divorced women taking on the responsibility of serving as both mother and father to their children. Perhaps Trump is seen by them as the strong, male father-figure who will help them in their burdens, even if it means they have to sacrifice their self-respect. This is where compassion needs to enter into these women’s lives in order to stop this cycle of female self-abuse.
So, what do we, the compassionate members of society, do about this country in its current state of awaiting the possibility of a President completely without any ability to acknowledge the feelings of anyone other than himself? Well, in our family, if we encounter anyone unwilling to act appropriately and play fair, with a reasonable amount of consciousness, consideration and compromise, then we push back. Typically, the push back comes in the form of speaking the truth about our feelings and standing our ground. If a boy can’t play nice with us, we tell him that he can’t play with us at all; he needs to go away until he can learn to play fair with others. With respect to an impending Trump presidency, our family’s approach, just like with any unreasonable bully, is to push back against what is so inherently wrong — by speaking the truth about our feelings and by never tolerating anyone who refuses to understand the simple human value of compassion. Compassionless Trump and all of his hate mongers must NEVER be permitted to hold the positions of rule-making in this country, and they must NEVER be allowed to return to any platform of power until they have clearly demonstrated the simple signs of civility that would be expected of any person seeking to claim a role of leadership in this country (let alone a kid on a playground). The push back against Trump and his followers is actually a very compassionate act. It is giving them to opportunity to realize that their attitudes and behavior are not working and are unacceptable in society. It allows them, if they take it, the opportunity to reflectively consider their own blocks to compassion in their lives and to re-examine where and how and who in their past has prevented them from developing into the compassionate person they really want to be.
The last shot for a chance at decency for fulfilling the role of the next President of the United States lies with the Electoral College vote on December 19th. Since upholding the popular vote seems abhorrent to the Republican Electors, and since we are a family that values goodness in compromise over allegiance to any political affiliation, we implore these Electors to consider another Republican candidate — one who clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the mature compassion required to represent the many real and undeniable needs of the citizens of this nation. In this way, and only in this way, can this nation (at least the majority) begin to breathe again.
Ande Romano Schmitt and Christopher Romano Schmitt are writers and the co-founders of The Little Philosopher Group, a family business which provides fun, philosophical books and materials for families and organizations that support families. She and her family are currently working on their next book, The Little Philosopher Family Visits…The Idea of Beauty in New York City. More information is available at www.thelittlephilosopher.com