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A Call for a Charter of Compassion
Joanne Sales – Nov 2008

When I was eight, I had a dream of a sinking ship. I ran around trying to warn everyone, “The ship is sinking!” But no one even heard my voice. I awoke, shaken.

That dream influenced many choices in my life. In the 70s, the dream meant storing dried beans in metal trashcans in the basement. But 50 years later, I’m now betting all my cards on one solution for the sinking ship – compassion.

At the time of the dream, mid 1950s in the US, occasionally the whole city would pretend that Russian bombs were on their way. Air raid sirens would sound, televisions would go grey, radios static, and we children would climb under our desks with our hands over our heads. Lord only knows how any of this would help. But the ship didn’t sink.

Years passed. Some things got better, others worse. Most people just stayed busy, running from one side of the ship to the other, making money, shopping, playing games, or frying burgers. Others, with a mind for jumping ship, searched the horizon and sky for other places to swim to.

One of the most unfortunate things that happened since the air raid drills has been the rise of fundamentalism in many religions. A simplified explanation of fundamentalism is this: “We get it. You don’t get it. You guys are stupid. We’re good. You’re bad. God’s gonna get you and it serves you right, etc.” It’s the same doctrine no matter where it shows up, and it arises from the projection of the same demon emotion - fear. And of course, the ego.

But hey – whenever lots of people race to one side of a ship, it creates the opportunity and the need for others to move to the opposite side. And so it is. There is a bright opening of light on the other side of the deck. Humans are rediscovering the power of love.

A new website highlights this shift in consciousness on the planet, www.charterforcompassion.com. It came from a wish by prizewinner Karen Armstrong, former nun, author of A History of God, on www.Ted.com. It’s a collaborative effort, and all religions are encouraged to contribute, recognizing that the Golden Rule is at the core of all world religions. “When complete, the Charter will show that the voice of negativity and violence so often associated with religion is the minority and that the voice of compassion is the majority.”

Once I had a poster of a book shot to smithereens by a disapproving student. “Professor, I got so mad at that book, I took it into the backyard and shot it to pieces.” We laugh at the idea of shooting at a book, but we take shots at people, ideas and dreams all the time. It’s the ethical standard of the Wild West.

But this is a new era. “The end of an error.” The error didn’t belong to us or them; the error was us and them. Who is us and who is them? It isn’t so clear anymore. Time has put a lot of question marks where periods used to be. Where does one race start or end? Where do my thoughts end and yours begin? Where does our welfare end and theirs begin? On a ship this small, we float or sink together. One inspiring reason to reconsider compassion is the will to survive.

Besides, times have changed. Now our ship is wired. Everyday, we see first hand the faces, needs, stories, and suffering going on around us.

A mother’s only child died. She was beside her self in grief, running through the village, crying for help. Someone told her to go see the Buddha. The Buddha told her that he would help her, but first, she must bring a grain of rice from a household that had not experienced death. She ran from house to house. Everyone was willing to share some rice, but she could not find a single house that had not been touched by the sting of death. This was not good news for the mother. So why did it change her? Because it opened her heart beyond her own suffering. She began to live for others.

Compassion is not something new. But we’re rediscovering just how powerful it is. It’s not a permissive, weak stance, a feel good sugar pill, a cop-out or a whiny self-defense strategy. For reasons we are just beginning to grasp, compassion is a powerful transformative principle. A force that changes the course of history.

And it doesn’t come in the door alone. Compassion is holding hands with other greats – justice, equality, patience, generosity, harmlessness, and forgiveness. It’s a shift of perspective and purpose, a call for a higher standard for both our outer and our inner behavior.

Beans in a trash can get used up in rough times or thrown overboard in rough waters, but a Charter for Compassion reflects a light that could see us through to calmer water, where 8-years-olds don’t hide under their desks or dream of sinking ships.Joanne Sales is an organic blueberry farmer and freelance writer living in Qualicum Beach.