This time last week, I was immersed in silence at the Friends Meeting House in Darlington, thinking about compassion. I’m sure that if I were a Christian I would have found my way to the silent worship of Quakerism by now, it appeals to something very deep in me, probably the same thing that has been sending me off to Buddhist retreats for the last eight years. I appreciate the way Quakers think profoundly about very big issues indeed – conflict, war, refugees, tolerance, peace. Their writings emphasise inclusion, welcome and bridges between faiths. I think this is an expression of compassion.
We had a very lovely time talking and eating the homemade carrot cake someone had kindly made. Everyone engaged with my fumbling questions with great integrity and thoughtfulness, but I’d like to share one anecdote here in particular, because it really illustrated for me the challenge and beauty of acting compassionately.
A man goes into his regular pub and finds to his dismay that there is printed material on the bar containing racist and anti-refugee jokes. He is boiling over with indignation and anger towards the two barmen, who he had previously thought of as friendly, welcoming people. He doesn’t know how to confront them, how to argue with them, how to defend the victims from this attack. He shows the ‘jokes’ to a friend who also drinks in the pub, and asks him how he would handle it. The other man goes up to the barmen and says “I have known you two for years. You are always the first to help people round here when they need it, I know you are kind. Why are you refusing help to these other people when they need it most?”
I don’t know the outcome of the story, and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Of course it would be wonderful if the barmen suddenly had epiphanies and stopped fearing immigrants, but I suppose it’s more likely they would have retorted with some ‘charity begins at home’ position. But for me, it’s an example of how to be in the world and actively engage with divisive issues on a personal level – without compromising on the aim of compassion for everyone.