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A Wider Circle of Compassion: The Newtown Massacre and Beyond

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(Article changed on December 24, 2012 at 14:43)


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For the past week the news media has been flooded with the story of the Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-eight people were gunned down. Twenty of them young children between the ages of six and seven.

Beyond the horror of the massacre itself, what particularly caught my attention was the flood of compassion expressed for the murdered children and their families. I couldn't help but wonder where all this compassion was hiding when the U.S. was busy murdering hundreds of thousands of young children in Iraq. (Of course, the murders continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere with each passing day, but Iraq was especially hard hit by America's war machine).

From 1991 to 2003 over a million Iraqi civilians died as a result of U.S. economic sanctions placed on Iraq. More than 500,000 of those were children under the age of five. Not 20 dead children as there were in Newtown, but 500,000. It was known at the time that 50,000 children under the age of five were dying of malnutrition and from lack of medical care as a result of the sanctions each and every year that the sanctions were in force.

In 2003, after more than a decade of sanctions, the U.S. then invaded Iraq. As a result of the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion -- based entirely on lies for the purposes of pillaging and plundering Iraq's resources -- over a million more Iraqi civilians were killed. More than half of these were woman and children, many of whom had their bodies literally ripped apart by high-powered weaponry.

So, in perusing the news of the Newtown massacre I was struck by the fact that the majority of Americans whose hearts go out to the murdered children of Newtown were silent during this enormously greater and far more disturbing massacre of Iraqi children. Indeed, the majority of those whose hearts went out to the victims of Newtown offered their support, encouragement, and even praise for those doing all the killing in Iraq. Why? What, I wondered, does it take for a fellow human being who is suffering to evoke someone's compassion?

We all have the capacity to place ourselves in another's shoes, but it is constrained by the deeper problem of our identity... of who it is that we conceive ourselves to be. If the whole of our identity consisted of nothing more than an individual ego, encapsulated in and identified with a particular body, any genuine expression of empathy and compassion simply wouldn't be possible.

Fortunately, the boundaries that limit and define our experience of self are never satisfied to remain static. Our prime directive and primary desire is always to move beyond existing boundaries. By our very nature we are in the business of expansion, and it is this ever-expanding sense of self that undergirds our growing capacity for empathy and compassion.

From bodily-encased ego we expand outward to embrace ourselves as a member of a family. A bit further down the road we find ourselves as a link in a dear circle of friends. Our student years find us appreciating a commonality with our fellow students at a particular school and in a particular town. And throughout all this we are developing an increasingly solidified national identity as a further extension of the ties that bind. We are Americans. Early on, the vast majority of us are also found identifying with this or that religion. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. And, of course, there are ethnic and racial ties that reach out to claim us as their own as well. We are white, black, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Native American, and so on.

Each of these identity markers, and many more, carry with them an expanded sense of self and an increased sense of belonging, but, unfortunately, more often than not they also serve to divide us one from another. With this division comes fear, and with that fear the natural expansion of our identity to embrace ever-larger domains of experience becomes increasingly guarded until somewhere along the way the ongoing development in the formation of our identity freezes.

All of this and more takes place long before the age of reason when our capacity for critical thinking kicks in. But reason isn't much help here. By the time we reach the age of reason much of our identity is already well established and locked in place, and whatever rational thinking we do is done on the basis of this. Reason is put into the service of the fear-inspired psycho-emotional conditioning that tells us that we really are the various social roles we play, and that the national, religious, racial, and ethnic identities foist upon us by the accident of birth are essential elements of who we really are.

Young children can be easily forgiven for falling for such nonsense. Adults, too, can be forgiven for not having sufficient awareness to see through the self-deception. But forgiveness is not license. This is no way for a mature adult to be living. If we see our essential identity as consisting of being an American, then our ability to trade shoes with others will be limited to other Americans. If we see our essential identity as consisting of being a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, then we will find our capacity for empathy restricted to those who share that same basic sense of self. Whatever we conceive of as forming the essential elements of our identity becomes the measure of our empathy.

If there is to be peace in this world, all of these false and limited conceptions of self have to go. If there is to be peace in this world, our frozen identities must once again become fluid so that we can again resume following in the way of humanity's prime directive and our primary desire that has us always moving beyond existing boundaries to embrace an ever-expanding sense of self.

We are not Americans! We are not Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists! At least not essentially. Even the designation of ourselves as human beings is far too restrictive to capture the essence of who we really are. Essentially, we are conscious beings, or, rather, we are consciousness itself: boundless consciousness, as opposed to the many and varied boundaries that constitute its content. In the archaic language that appears to suit so many of us, we are "spirit." This is our essential self. Here humanity's prime directive and our primary desire to move beyond all boundaries finds its fulfillment. Here we embrace the infinite. Not as some highfalutin philosophical idea, but as the direct experience of that most intimate of all realities"... the reality of who and what we really are in the very core of our being.

We are in the midst of a major transition -- a transformation in how we experience and conceive of ourselves in relation to all else. This transformation of self is not an option... our continued survival depends upon it.

May the Newtown massacre and this Christmas season together serve to facilitate the further awakening in each of us of a wider circle of compassion.

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Short Bio: Rob Quinn taught Philosophy for ten years at the University of Oklahoma (OU), and the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). Prior to this he worked as a therapist in an in-residence psychiatric facility for disturbed young children. (more...)

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