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To Not Walk Away: the Challenge of Compassion in the Neoliberal World

‘Did your husband act toward you with cruelty?’

‘Yes.’

‘In what way did this cruelty manifest itself?’

‘He persistently’ — how does that go again?’

‘He persistently and cruelly ignored my personal wishes and my rights and resorted on several occasions to physical violence against me.’

‘He persistently’ — oh, do I have to say that? Why can’t I just say, ‘He wasn’t there?’ — I mean, you could touch him, but he wasn’t there.’

— Thelma Ritter, as Isabelle Steers in The Misfits, (screenplay by Arthur Miller) rehearsing Marilyn Monroe, as Roslyn Taber, for the latter’s divorce trial.

The disassociation of the individual from the polity; in effect the non-existence anywhere of true democracy has led to a hollowing out of the human personality. It is only in concrete social action that we materialize fully as human beings. It is as members of a community who are able to truly guide that community that we find a deep human purpose. 

— Daniel Corjescu, The Age of Ego,  in Counterpunch

No man can give himself heart and soul to one thing while in the back of his mind he cherishes a desire, a secret hope, for something very different.”

— Fr. Hector discusses his decision to remain a missionary in Canada, Willa Cather, Shadows On the Rock

Having grown up in a household full of silences to which I adapted out of necessity,  I am continuously learning about the importance of speaking, rather than saying nothing, or “assuming.”  It is strange but true that the unspoken can lead to wild imaginings on the part of others, to triggering of fear, even between people on intimate terms who basically trust each other.  Silences can bring you down into old places of infantile helplessness, utter dependency, of pre-verbal abandonments and betrayals remembered in the body’s darkness and not the mind’s light.   The words we speak must be keyed to the  understanding, as poet William Stafford wrote, that around us “the darkness is deep.”  Our words must, without faking it, reassure; yes, I bodily and spiritually am here, not away somewhere withdrawn into my coldness and uncommunicativeness.  Just taking up that one task of faithful communication, is, in my view, a serious practice of community building.  It will not happen, and happens less, as people imagine they are “communicating” when they tweet and message each other, since, as I’m saying, the primary and non-substitutable reassurance is embodied.  You can say anything you  like, but are you there?  This is the infant’s question, and it remains our adult question who still carry that infant – and her/his need for embodied reassurance – within us.

Who can do it?  Who can be here embodied?  I would go further, to ask it more theologically-tilted, who can be here incarnated?  In some part we know, to be here incarnated, our unlimited consciousness embodied in the form provided by nature is to suffer; without exaggeration, suffering is the last thing anyone wants.  Happily for us, our society has constructed a way of life that allows us to  refuse the reality of suffering, as if suffering had been overcome, like polio,  the  body’s mystic reality reduced to something to manage, not to heed.  I say “us” meaning, in one conversation, white people, in another middle class people, in another men, in another secular humanist liberal progressives, or Americans, wherever privilege dominates.

To be able to deny the reality of the body, its limitations and suffering, and its innate mysticism,  one has to occupy a position of relative power. For my parents,  occupying that place of unconscious parental power, facing the crisis of providing warmth, reassurance, of seeing and acknowledging the otherness of their children – to be very good at it – would have entailed a suffering they’d not been conditioned to take on.  Although westerners are conditioned to sacrifice – suffer – in terms of delaying gratification for future (material) goods,  the suffering of simply being mortal is shunned as if it were a trap we can escape. In fact, most of us can successfully maintain an illusion of freedom from suffering when certain basic conditions are met, among them affluence, the belief in material and technological progress making life better and better, and a permanent “other” upon which can be projected that unwanted and feared reality of embodied existence with its baggage of suffering.

Recently we hosted a talk at our little non-profit space, The Other Side, called Does White Supremacy Exist In the Mohawk Valley; the talk was part of a series called The Big Conversation, organized by a committee of volunteers,  conceived as a means to enlarge the conversation going on in Utica about important matters.  The speaker, Patrick,  is a local black man, a consultant on race and leader of workshops aimed at addressing (unconscious) racism.  The audience was made up of about 40 white people and 5 black people. As you might imagine, the white people who attended were among the most socially progressive people in our Republican-dominated area, mostly faces known to us, but some not.

The subject of racism is closely linked to those I’ve been speaking of,  embodiment or incarnation, and suffering.  In his talk, in order to elucidate the meaning of white supremacy, Patrick had told a story of his having not long ago approached a school board member in a supermarket to ask him about hiring more racial minorities in the school district. “Long story short,” as Patrick persisted, the School Board guy became defensive and walked away.  Patrick’s point was to distinguish between those who can walk away and those, the underclass, who cannot.

As I listened through the Q&A following Patrick’s talk, I considered bringing up one of the very simplest actions we can take to counter racism, white privilege, white supremacy in ourselves, which is to live in the inner city, to reject that white privilege of suburban – including country farmhouse suburban – “walking away.”  I’m not saying “should,” mind you; just that for those committed to social-racial justice,  this action can hardly be beat.

Moving into the Inner City, throwing your lot in with those who mainly cannot leave, is very different from showing up at vigils or sitting on committees working for progressive organizations.  It is an embodiment; taking it on, in my experience (not everyone would agree with me), one is faced with learning how to suffer, with rediscovering what Ivan Illich called the art of suffering that we have lost in western society.  Such a suggestion  is so preposterous that white suburban people do not – for more than a flicker of an instant – have to consider it seriously.  What about the dangers to the kids? Bad schools, too-big schools, and crime?  What about gardens and lawns and beauty?

There really is no way to pretty this up and make it more appealing.  It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or not, this is what is meant by the incarnation as represented in the image of Christ.  Ignored for its essential and unappetizing meaning, odious to a people who increasingly have the luxury and have accrued the evidence to believe that we can avoid suffering and heroic sacrifice (except on the field of battle), we lack the meaning inherent in incarnation which is significant way beyond the boundaries of those who call themselves Christians.  That is, the “I am the life,” that aliveness is in us, calling to be incarnated,  is our capacity to heroically “be there,” to be present, to stop scaring each other and ourselves and to work on  making our world a safe place for vulnerable, hurtable human beings.  Failing to understand the evolutionary call to incarnate,  we reduce our human being to an outer-directed, feet-off-the-ground individualism) the opposite of the liberated individual that is the meaning of history according to Hegel (Corjescu, The Age of Ego), who “fully materializes only in concrete social action.”   In opposing the aliveness in ourselves, we cannot help but view others as upstarts whom we must defend against.

Along the way, we have developed an outsized fear of suffering that works perfectly against our ever knowing the joy available to those willing to “be there,” rather than to walk away. The unnatural paper-thin disembodied individualism, learned in spite of the body’s own innate indigenous wisdom that seeks the reassurance of the warmth and presence of  human bodies animated by human hearts, can be sustained only by the dominant, consumer, technologically mediated society.  It can be fed and sustained only as much as we remain isolated from each other, fearful of otherness, capable only of acting upon the unconscious  dualism that conveys the world to us in terms of inferior vs superior, worthy vs unworthy, deserving or undeserving, lazy or responsible, black or white.

As a matter of fact, I agree with anyone who believes that life is meant to be enjoyed, that we are right to savor good food and wine in convivial surroundings, have beauty all around us, have interesting well-paying jobs and feel safe.  These are not goods about which to be defensive, they are simply goods!  Everyone who is sentient should want these goods, and, in fact, must enjoy them without guilt.  But if one imagines one is challenging white supremacy one must face the fact that many black people cannot take these things for granted.  What I’m suggesting to the liberal progressive justice-concerned people, those of us who were shocked by Charlottesville,  is emphatically not to don a hair shirt, but to be really, really radical; to stay down here, in place, to not walk away and instead to engage in the struggle to be human, which is to be human together, the outcome of which is not foreknown.

Embodied action will make you an outsider; no longer informed by the religious traditions that understood the soul’s way of knowing, outsiders have to find alternative ways to sustain themselves and the meaning of what they are doing other than the mainstream offerings and seductions of “the (materialist) good life.”   Outsiders have to learn to look for and – at least occasionally – to celebrate the meaning in their suffering, in their private unlauded heroism.  For this work I can only suggest the practice of an art.

More articles by:

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious.

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