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Compassion Business: Whose Business is It?

When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts,
they transform them.
Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards,
it creates new cards, and it involves being
willing to emerge a slightly different person.
Theodore Zeldin


Bondi is well known for good beaches, good food, and good walks. Bondi is also becoming well known for its good conversation.  Holistic Practices Beyond Borders(HPBB), a not for profit professional association, has begun conversations on compassion at the Waverley Council library. Compassion is now a hot topic in science with UNSW Australia School of Psychology Senior Lecturer Lisa A. Williams. telling us that “compassion can be cultivated and can be turned outward towards others or indeed towards oneself.

For 2 hours, the theatrette of Waverley Library became a place of learning about compassion from a panel of 5 experts. Compassion in Context revealed the complexity of living in today’s world where home for many is not a safe place. The energy of the room flowed with interest, awareness and deep thought.  Having food at the beginning was a good warm up.

Sonia Anderson did a wonderful job of MC, her introduction set the scene for the calm, focused and caring energy that was picked up by our speakers. Sonia gave a sincere respectful welcome and introduction as well as co-facilitating the open conversation between the audience and the panel.  The wind up that Sonia gave created a reflective conclusion to the richness of conversation, to the meaningful questions, answers and questions without answers.

The panel included Paul Pearce an active member of the NSW Labor Party; Dr Lisa A. Williams, senior lecturer at UNSW Australia School of Psychology; Tshimanga Beya   Counsellor/Project Officer for STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors); Lucy Morgan, Information and Policy Officer for the Refugee Council of Australia and Emma Campbell, Field Staff Member for Médecins Sans Frontièrs.

Lisa Williams, our HPBB member as well as one of the panel speakers, was able to bring into the conversation a clear insight into the whys the why not’s and otherwise clarity of what is going on between us as social beings. The distinction between cultivating ‘in group’ compassion and an ‘out group’ compassion led to much thoughtful conversation. Lisa reminded us that ‘compassion is typically classed along with positive emotions, but it certainly has a negative tone to its experience. This makes sense given that what brings about compassion is witnessing the suffering of another person or group of people. The key outcome of this emotion is a motivation to relieve the suffering at hand.’ 

Paul Pearce was a past Waverly Council Mayor and now is part of the State Labor Party.  Paul opened up the perspective of the role of politicians and government. It became clear that the individual ethics and practices of an individual politician can be in conflict with the institutional policies and direction that their workplace, the government may require from them. The system of government seems to be focused and accountable at this time in Australia’s history towards Rational Economics. From Paul Pearce, we got a very clear message of the dissonance between the compassionate ideals of political individuals and the reality of how they see or actualize the political work of government.  Paul brought in the term Bleeding Heart to describe the way compassion is being left out of sincere political debate. It seemed that as the evening progressed, as conversation between the speakers developed, that the role of politicians as leaders is a challenge that encompasses courage as well as conviction.  That this role is complex, dependent on satisfying the voters, who bring the politicians into a position of power, creates a question of social education; ‘whose business is it to bring compassion into social discourse’?

Tshimanga Beya is originally from The Congo and is now a Counsellor for STARTTS, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors.  Tshimanga guided us through the reality of the connection and disconnection that occurs with leaving ones homeland and going through trauma. The sense of being unsafe, lies at the heart of being excluded, being seen as less than, being stripped of dignity.  Tshimanga spoke of living a life with the awareness of human suffering and compassion, affording everyone who suffers the comfort of being reminded that we are all part of the one human family that every human being belongs to. Tshimanga expressed how through this process of being seen as worthy, of connecting with a human being that sincerely cares, the fear can subside and the person can reconnect with their own warm caring self. The social fear can be replaced with social bonding. The compassion or human dignity gap appeared to be a lack of systemic consideration in providing the scaffolding of care that allows free and easy access to this social bonding.

Lucy Morgan is the policy and information officer for the Refugee Council of Australia. Lucy was passionate about the attitudinal reality that guides decision making. In Europe some countries have government leadership that highlights the compassion to the ‘stranger’ perspective. That to see pain and suffering and say, it is none of our business, is for some countries at this time in our history, unacceptable. Yet, here in Australia, this perspective seems to be hidden, or unattended to. Lucy brought our attention to the fact that although Australia is geographically much larger than many of the world countries, Australia maintains a position that appears to be aligned to compassion is not our business. Lucy gave clarity to the wider world perspective of the responses to suffering from other countries.

Emma Campbell is the Staff Member, Médecins Sans Frontièrs, Doctors Without Borders.  Emma has just returned from Lebanon, where she worked with MSF at the refugee camp, witnessing the arrivals of refuges from Syria and the region. Her reflection of her work, her life which included many stories of moral crossroads, brought the characteristic of courage into the room. That to behave in compassionate ways is often as Lisa reminded us, an uncomfortable feeling. It does not start off with a warm wooly sensation. On the contrary, acting in compassionate ways is a response to suffering, pain, discomfort. Emma remarked that economic rationalism is not an excuse for not acting compassionately, it is rather a lack of courage, a lack of what Tshimanga said ‘conviction’.  Emma brought the essential truth into the room, that as human beings our point of difference to the rest of nature, lies in our choices.  Whether we believe in a creator or in evolution, whether we see the stranger as one of us, a human being or an outsider, it is within the making of choices that our very lives become powerful.  Emma explained the Doctors Without Borders operate under 2 guiding principles. One is to relieve the pain and suffering through medical intervention to anyone who so needs it, given the resources that are available.  The other principle is to do no harm. There have been a couple of cases where Doctors Without Borders have had to leave war zones due to corruption, where their camp sites were being used for purposes that created harm rather than healing zones.

The reality of human power, the capacity to choose, beckons us when we are faced with suffering.  What choices are we making, as individuals, as a country?   Compassion in Context, seems to include the courage to face suffering and think of ‘what can I do to make this life better?’  It was evident as the evening progressed that all the panel members had chosen educational pathways and work place roles that aligned them with making a difference.  It did also appear that in some lines of work, the frustration of systemic institutional rational economics seemed to abandon caring economics.

Whose business is the business of compassion? Is it possible that in the 21st century, where the internet allows us all to not only see each other, but know each other, that we can create a world wide web of caring for each other, of creating a world of dignity?

[i] Lisa A. Williams and Elizabeth Barrett-Cheetham  in Social Psychological Perspective on Compassion in Conversations On Compassion 2015


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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