Embeded in some of the worst human actions is fine human
Ten days ago, a teacher hid her pupils from a deranged
American gunman at the cost of her own life. A bereaved
parent felt for the family of that killer of his child.
Some set out to imprison. Others want to open doors. In
October, the Taliban shot a 14-year-old Pakistani in the head
for advocating education for girls, calling her an
''obscenity'' against Islam. Pakistan's army chief said Islam
guarantees everyone, male and female, ''equal inalienable
rights to life, property and human dignity''.
The United States is not a shooting gallery. Most Americans
get on with life in much the way most of us here do. Pakistan
is not a fortress of indignity. Most there try in their
culturally different way to live regular lives as we aim to
Those regular lives - here or in Pakistan or Connecticut -
cannot be one-dimensional. Each human is unique. Daily life
forces us to respect others' uniqueness, their capacities and
incapacities, if we are to live well. Deals must be done,
ideas and ideals adjusted to the realities of the street or
locality or nation.
None of us is without value. None of us carries no damage. We
are complicit in that complexity.
Here is a take on a man most would think extremely damaged,
Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who gunned down young
people for their different politics:
''Obviously, we need to show compassion towards [the victims
of terrible events]. [And] there is understandably much fear
and anger towards the perpetrators.
''However ... imagine being full of fear and hate like Mr
Breivik. Those feelings have never made me feel happy. If you
can show compassion to the most destructive, then you can
show unending compassion to those who suffer the most.''
The writer was Shaun McKinney, a severely disabled Aucklander
who died, aged 26, in November.
Mr McKinney lived a full life, to the limits of his
disability, determined to run a business.
''Paradoxically,'' he wrote, ''some of us have more struggles
but suffer less. If you are accustomed to struggle you learn
to deal with it, you realise that things happen over which
you have no control.
''Struggle can make people bitter and selfish or it can make
them feel empathy and compassion towards others.''
Mr McKinney's struggles would make the struggles of the rest
of us feel like a walk on the beach. But he saw options. His
mother wrote after he died that he endured his struggle
''with such dignity and grace that one might suspect Shaun
understood that the struggle was only one side of the coin of
life and chose to express other, more important things''.
Mr McKinney did not want pity. Pity is no practical use.
Philip Patston, another severely disabled, determinedly
upbeat Aucklander - and a leader - made that point: ''Shaun
wanted to inspire people to rethink compassion, remove its
commonly held association with pity and consider how 'smart
compassion' could alleviate suffering and create new
solutions to old problems.''
Mr Patston's and Mr McKinney's insight applies to the child
There is a ''do-good'' line, doing nice things to others.
Much good is done that way by good people, and that good is
true and valuable. The risk is that the recipients stay
inferior, not whole, like the pitied disabled.
The other line is to treat the poor, like the disabled, as
whole. Their struggles are bigger than those of the
comfortably waged. They will be more whole if they can
''express other, more important things''.
Apply that to their children. Pity is no practical use to
them. Investing in them so they have a real option to be the
whole person Mr McKinney was determined to be accords
''dignity and grace''.
That is the message in Mr McKinney's ''compassion'': it is
''together-passion'', strong fellow-feeling.
Ultimately, we are born alone and die alone and
in-between-times live alone with the impossibility of knowing
what we and the universe are truly about. But we also live
that aloneness with all other alone humans.
Mr McKinney's compassion puts the ''com'' in the passion of
struggle through life. It makes hope. That used to be a core
message of Christmas in the best of Christian teaching.
Try it from another angle: from John Morgan, a businessman
with a life of success on his account, now chief executive of
the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.
Businessmen are supposed to be dessicated autocrats, whose
''struggle'' is to drive staff to ever greater output - the
people who divert Christmas into profit.
Listen to Mr Morgan:''The ability of humans to multiply their
love never ceases to amaze me.
''When you have only one child, you think, 'I couldn't
possibly love another child as much as this.' And then you
have another child and you do ... Then a grandchild comes
along and a whole lot of new love comes out of nowhere.
''The fact is, you never run out of love. You just grow some
''Grow some more love'' is the secret of Shaun McKinney's
''unending compassion''. It is the secret of Christmas.
- Colin James is a leading social and political