Rachel Naomi Remen is actually bringing compassion back to its rightful place alongside science in her field of medicine in the training of new doctors. And this trend of what Rachel Naomi Remen is doing, how these kinds of virtues are finding a place in the vocabulary of medicine — the work Fred Luskin is doing — I think this is one of the most fascinating developments of the 21st century — that science, in fact, is taking a virtue like compassion definitively out of the realm of idealism.
This is going to change science, I believe, and it will change religion. But here’s a face from 20th century science that might surprise you in a discussion about compassion. We all know about the Albert Einstein who came up with E = mc2. We don’t hear so much about the Einstein who invited the African American opera singer, Marian Anderson, to stay in his home when she came to sing in Princeton because the best hotel there was segregated and wouldn’t have her.
We don’t hear about the Einstein who used his celebrity to advocate for political prisoners in Europe or the Scottsboro boys in the American South. Einstein believed deeply that science should transcend national and ethnic divisions.
But he watched physicists and chemists become the purveyors of weapons of mass destruction in the early 20th century. He once said that science in his generation had become like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old.
And Einstein foresaw that as we grow more modern and technologically advanced, we need the virtues our traditions carry forward in time more, not less. He liked to talk about the spiritual geniuses of the ages. Some of his favorites were Moses, Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi — he adored his contemporary, Gandhi.
And Einstein said — and I think this is a quote, again, that has not been passed down in his legacy — that “these kinds of people are geniuses in the art of living, more necessary to the dignity, security and joy of humanity than the discoverers of objective knowledge.”
Now invoking Einstein might not seem the best way to bring compassion down to earth and make it seem accessible to all the rest of us, but actually it is.
I want to show you the rest of this photograph, because this photograph is analogous to what we do to the word “compassion” in our culture — we clean it up and we diminish its depths and its grounding in life, which is messy.
So in this photograph you see a mind looking out a window at what might be a cathedral — it’s not. This is the full photograph, and you see a middle-aged man wearing a leather jacket, smoking a cigar. And by the look of that paunch, he hasn’t been doing enough yoga.
We put these two photographs side-by-side on our website, and someone said, “When I look at the first photo, I ask myself, what was he thinking? And when I look at the second, I ask, what kind of person was he? What kind of man is this?”
Well, he was complicated. He was incredibly compassionate in some of his relationships and terribly inadequate in others. And it is much harder, often, to be compassionate towards those closest to us, which is another quality in the universe of compassion, on its dark side, that also deserves our serious attention and illumination.
Gandhi, too, was a real flawed human being. So was Martin Luther King, Jr. So was Dorothy Day. So was Mother Teresa. So are we all.
And I want to say that it is a liberating thing to realize that that is no obstacle to compassion — following on what Fred Luskin says — that these flaws just make us human. Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems.
But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.
Rachel Naomi Remen is a better doctor because of her life-long struggle with Crohn’s disease. Einstein became a humanitarian, not because of his exquisite knowledge of space and time and matter, but because he was a Jew as Germany grew fascist.
And Karen Armstrong, I think you would also say that it was some of your very wounding experiences in a religious life that, with a zigzag, have led to the Charter for Compassion. Compassion can’t be reduced to sainthood any more than it can be reduced to pity.
So I want to propose a final definition of compassion — this is Einstein with Paul Robeson by the way — and that would be for us to call compassion a spiritual technology.
Now our traditions contain vast wisdom about this, and we need them to mine it for us now. But compassion is also equally at home in the secular as in the religious.
So I will paraphrase Einstein in closing and say that humanity, the future of humanity, needs this technology as much as it needs all the others that have now connected us and set before us the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race.