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TEDPrize@UN

Krista Tippett: Reconnecting with compassion

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The term "compassion" -- typically reserved for the saintly or the sappy -- has fallen out of touch with reality. At a special TEDPrize@UN, journalist Krista Tippett deconstructs the meaning of compassion through several moving stories, and proposes a new, more attainable definition for the word.

- Journalist
Krista Tippett hosts the national public radio program "On Being" (formerly "Speaking of Faith"), which takes up the great animating questions of human life: What does it mean to be human? And how do we want to live? Full bio

We're here to celebrate compassion.
00:15
But compassion, from my vantage point,
00:17
has a problem.
00:19
As essential as it is across our traditions,
00:21
as real as so many of us know it to be
00:24
in particular lives,
00:26
the word "compassion" is hollowed out in our culture,
00:28
and it is suspect in my field of journalism.
00:31
It's seen as a squishy kumbaya thing,
00:34
or it's seen as potentially depressing.
00:37
Karen Armstrong has told what I think is an iconic story
00:40
of giving a speech in Holland
00:43
and, after the fact, the word "compassion"
00:45
was translated as "pity."
00:48
Now compassion, when it enters the news,
00:52
too often comes in the form
00:54
of feel-good feature pieces
00:56
or sidebars about heroic people
00:58
you could never be like
01:01
or happy endings
01:03
or examples of self-sacrifice
01:05
that would seem to be too good to be true
01:08
most of the time.
01:10
Our cultural imagination about compassion
01:12
has been deadened by idealistic images.
01:15
And so what I'd like to do this morning
01:18
for the next few minutes
01:20
is perform a linguistic resurrection.
01:22
And I hope you'll come with me on my basic premise
01:24
that words matter,
01:26
that they shape the way we understand ourselves,
01:28
the way we interpret the world
01:30
and the way we treat others.
01:32
When this country
01:34
first encountered genuine diversity
01:36
in the 1960s,
01:38
we adopted tolerance
01:40
as the core civic virtue
01:42
with which we would approach that.
01:44
Now the word "tolerance," if you look at it in the dictionary,
01:46
connotes "allowing," "indulging"
01:49
and "enduring."
01:52
In the medical context that it comes from,
01:54
it is about testing the limits of thriving
01:56
in an unfavorable environment.
01:59
Tolerance is not really a lived virtue;
02:02
it's more of a cerebral ascent.
02:04
And it's too cerebral
02:07
to animate guts and hearts
02:09
and behavior
02:11
when the going gets rough.
02:13
And the going is pretty rough right now.
02:15
I think that without perhaps being able to name it,
02:17
we are collectively experiencing
02:20
that we've come as far as we can
02:22
with tolerance as our only guiding virtue.
02:24
Compassion is a worthy successor.
02:28
It is organic,
02:30
across our religious, spiritual and ethical traditions,
02:32
and yet it transcends them.
02:35
Compassion is a piece of vocabulary
02:38
that could change us if we truly let it sink into
02:41
the standards to which we hold ourselves and others,
02:44
both in our private and in our civic spaces.
02:47
So what is it, three-dimensionally?
02:51
What are its kindred and component parts?
02:54
What's in its universe of attendant virtues?
02:57
To start simply,
02:59
I want to say that compassion is kind.
03:01
Now "kindness" might sound like a very mild word,
03:04
and it's prone to its own abundant cliche.
03:08
But kindness is an everyday byproduct
03:12
of all the great virtues.
03:14
And it is a most edifying form
03:16
of instant gratification.
03:18
Compassion is also curious.
03:21
Compassion cultivates and practices curiosity.
03:24
I love a phrase that was offered me
03:27
by two young women
03:29
who are interfaith innovators in Los Angeles,
03:31
Aziza Hasan and Malka Fenyvesi.
03:33
They are working to create a new imagination
03:36
about shared life among young Jews and Muslims,
03:38
and as they do that, they cultivate what they call
03:41
"curiosity without assumptions."
03:44
Well that's going to be a breeding ground for compassion.
03:46
Compassion can be synonymous with empathy.
03:50
It can be joined with the harder work
03:53
of forgiveness and reconciliation,
03:56
but it can also express itself
03:59
in the simple act of presence.
04:01
It's linked to practical virtues
04:04
like generosity and hospitality
04:06
and just being there,
04:09
just showing up.
04:11
I think that compassion
04:15
also is often linked to beauty --
04:17
and by that I mean a willingness
04:19
to see beauty in the other,
04:21
not just what it is about them
04:23
that might need helping.
04:25
I love it that my Muslim conversation partners
04:27
often speak of beauty as a core moral value.
04:30
And in that light, for the religious,
04:34
compassion also brings us
04:37
into the territory of mystery --
04:39
encouraging us not just
04:42
to see beauty,
04:44
but perhaps also to look for the face of God
04:46
in the moment of suffering,
04:48
in the face of a stranger,
04:50
in the face of the vibrant religious other.
04:52
I'm not sure if I can show you
04:56
what tolerance looks like,
04:58
but I can show you what compassion looks like --
05:00
because it is visible.
05:02
When we see it, we recognize it
05:04
and it changes the way we think about what is doable,
05:06
what is possible.
05:08
It is so important
05:10
when we're communicating big ideas --
05:12
but especially a big spiritual idea like compassion --
05:14
to root it as we present it to others
05:18
in space and time and flesh and blood --
05:20
the color and complexity of life.
05:23
And compassion does seek physicality.
05:26
I first started to learn this most vividly
05:31
from Matthew Sanford.
05:33
And I don't imagine that you will realize this
05:35
when you look at this photograph of him,
05:37
but he's paraplegic.
05:39
He's been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 13,
05:41
in a car crash that killed his father and his sister.
05:44
Matthew's legs don't work, and he'll never walk again,
05:47
and -- and he does experience this as an "and"
05:50
rather than a "but" --
05:52
and he experiences himself
05:54
to be healed and whole.
05:56
And as a teacher of yoga,
05:58
he brings that experience to others
06:00
across the spectrum of ability and disability,
06:02
health, illness and aging.
06:05
He says that he's just at an extreme end
06:07
of the spectrum we're all on.
06:09
He's doing some amazing work now
06:12
with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
06:15
And Matthew has made this remarkable observation
06:18
that I'm just going to offer you and let it sit.
06:21
I can't quite explain it, and he can't either.
06:24
But he says that he has yet to experience someone
06:27
who became more aware of their body,
06:30
in all its frailty and its grace,
06:33
without, at the same time,
06:36
becoming more compassionate towards all of life.
06:38
Compassion also looks like this.
06:41
This is Jean Vanier.
06:44
Jean Vanier helped found the L'Arche communities,
06:47
which you can now find all over the world,
06:49
communities centered around life
06:51
with people with mental disabilities --
06:53
mostly Down syndrome.
06:55
The communities that Jean Vanier founded,
06:57
like Jean Vanier himself,
06:59
exude tenderness.
07:01
"Tender" is another word
07:03
I would love to spend some time resurrecting.
07:05
We spend so much time in this culture
07:07
being driven and aggressive,
07:09
and I spend a lot of time being those things too.
07:12
And compassion can also have those qualities.
07:14
But again and again, lived compassion
07:17
brings us back to the wisdom of tenderness.
07:20
Jean Vanier says
07:24
that his work,
07:26
like the work of other people --
07:28
his great, beloved, late friend Mother Teresa --
07:30
is never in the first instance about changing the world;
07:33
it's in the first instance about changing ourselves.
07:35
He's says that what they do with L'Arche
07:38
is not a solution, but a sign.
07:41
Compassion is rarely a solution,
07:44
but it is always a sign of a deeper reality,
07:47
of deeper human possibilities.
07:49
And compassion is unleashed
07:52
in wider and wider circles
07:55
by signs and stories,
07:58
never by statistics and strategies.
08:00
We need those things too,
08:03
but we're also bumping up against their limits.
08:05
And at the same time that we are doing that,
08:08
I think we are rediscovering the power of story --
08:11
that as human beings, we need stories
08:14
to survive, to flourish,
08:16
to change.
08:18
Our traditions have always known this,
08:20
and that is why they have always cultivated stories at their heart
08:22
and carried them forward in time for us.
08:25
There is, of course, a story
08:28
behind the key moral longing
08:31
and commandment of Judaism
08:33
to repair the world -- tikkun olam.
08:35
And I'll never forget hearing that story
08:38
from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen,
08:40
who told it to me as her grandfather told it to her,
08:42
that in the beginning of the Creation
08:45
something happened
08:47
and the original light of the universe
08:49
was shattered into countless pieces.
08:51
It lodged as shards
08:53
inside every aspect of the Creation.
08:55
And that the highest human calling
08:57
is to look for this light, to point at it when we see it,
09:00
to gather it up,
09:03
and in so doing, to repair the world.
09:05
Now this might sound like a fanciful tale.
09:08
Some of my fellow journalists might interpret it that way.
09:11
Rachel Naomi Remen says
09:14
this is an important and empowering story
09:16
for our time,
09:18
because this story insists
09:20
that each and every one of us,
09:22
frail and flawed as we may be,
09:24
inadequate as we may feel,
09:26
has exactly what's needed
09:28
to help repair the part of the world
09:30
that we can see and touch.
09:33
Stories like this,
09:36
signs like this,
09:39
are practical tools
09:41
in a world longing to bring compassion
09:43
to abundant images of suffering
09:47
that can otherwise overwhelm us.
09:50
Rachel Naomi Remen
09:53
is actually bringing compassion
09:55
back to its rightful place alongside science
09:57
in her field of medicine
09:59
in the training of new doctors.
10:01
And this trend
10:04
of what Rachel Naomi Remen is doing,
10:06
how these kinds of virtues
10:08
are finding a place in the vocabulary of medicine --
10:10
the work Fred Luskin is doing --
10:12
I think this is one of the most fascinating developments
10:14
of the 21st century --
10:16
that science, in fact,
10:18
is taking a virtue like compassion
10:20
definitively out of the realm of idealism.
10:23
This is going to change science, I believe,
10:26
and it will change religion.
10:29
But here's a face
10:31
from 20th century science
10:33
that might surprise you
10:35
in a discussion about compassion.
10:37
We all know about the Albert Einstein
10:39
who came up with E = mc2.
10:42
We don't hear so much about the Einstein
10:45
who invited the African American opera singer, Marian Anderson,
10:48
to stay in his home when she came to sing in Princeton
10:51
because the best hotel there
10:54
was segregated and wouldn't have her.
10:56
We don't hear about the Einstein who used his celebrity
10:58
to advocate for political prisoners in Europe
11:01
or the Scottsboro boys
11:04
in the American South.
11:06
Einstein believed deeply
11:08
that science should transcend
11:11
national and ethnic divisions.
11:13
But he watched physicists and chemists
11:15
become the purveyors of weapons of mass destruction
11:18
in the early 20th century.
11:21
He once said that science in his generation
11:23
had become like a razor blade
11:26
in the hands of a three-year-old.
11:28
And Einstein foresaw
11:30
that as we grow more modern
11:32
and technologically advanced,
11:34
we need the virtues
11:36
our traditions carry forward in time
11:38
more, not less.
11:41
He liked to talk about the spiritual geniuses of the ages.
11:43
Some of his favorites were Moses,
11:47
Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi,
11:49
Gandhi -- he adored his contemporary, Gandhi.
11:52
And Einstein said --
11:55
and I think this is a quote,
11:57
again, that has not been passed down in his legacy --
11:59
that "these kinds of people
12:01
are geniuses in the art of living,
12:03
more necessary
12:05
to the dignity, security and joy of humanity
12:07
than the discoverers of objective knowledge."
12:10
Now invoking Einstein
12:15
might not seem the best way to bring compassion down to earth
12:17
and make it seem accessible to all the rest of us,
12:20
but actually it is.
12:22
I want to show you
12:25
the rest of this photograph,
12:27
because this photograph
12:30
is analogous to what we do to the word "compassion" in our culture --
12:32
we clean it up
12:35
and we diminish its depths and its grounding
12:37
in life, which is messy.
12:40
So in this photograph
12:42
you see a mind looking out a window
12:44
at what might be a cathedral -- it's not.
12:46
This is the full photograph,
12:48
and you see a middle-aged man wearing a leather jacket,
12:50
smoking a cigar.
12:52
And by the look of that paunch,
12:54
he hasn't been doing enough yoga.
12:56
We put these two photographs side-by-side on our website,
12:58
and someone said, "When I look at the first photo,
13:01
I ask myself, what was he thinking?
13:03
And when I look at the second, I ask,
13:05
what kind of person was he? What kind of man is this?"
13:07
Well, he was complicated.
13:10
He was incredibly compassionate
13:12
in some of his relationships
13:14
and terribly inadequate in others.
13:16
And it is much harder, often,
13:19
to be compassionate towards those closest to us,
13:22
which is another quality in the universe of compassion,
13:26
on its dark side,
13:29
that also deserves our serious attention and illumination.
13:31
Gandhi, too, was a real flawed human being.
13:36
So was Martin Luther King, Jr. So was Dorothy Day.
13:39
So was Mother Teresa.
13:42
So are we all.
13:44
And I want to say
13:46
that it is a liberating thing
13:48
to realize that that is no obstacle to compassion --
13:50
following on what Fred Luskin says --
13:52
that these flaws just make us human.
13:55
Our culture is obsessed with perfection
13:58
and with hiding problems.
14:01
But what a liberating thing to realize
14:03
that our problems, in fact,
14:05
are probably our richest sources
14:07
for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion,
14:10
towards bringing compassion
14:14
towards the suffering and joys of others.
14:16
Rachel Naomi Remen is a better doctor
14:20
because of her life-long struggle with Crohn's disease.
14:23
Einstein became a humanitarian,
14:25
not because of his exquisite knowledge
14:27
of space and time and matter,
14:29
but because he was a Jew as Germany grew fascist.
14:31
And Karen Armstrong, I think you would also say
14:34
that it was some of your very wounding experiences
14:37
in a religious life that,
14:40
with a zigzag,
14:42
have led to the Charter for Compassion.
14:44
Compassion can't be reduced to sainthood
14:48
any more than it can be reduced to pity.
14:51
So I want to propose
14:55
a final definition of compassion --
14:57
this is Einstein with Paul Robeson by the way --
15:00
and that would be for us
15:03
to call compassion a spiritual technology.
15:05
Now our traditions contain
15:09
vast wisdom about this,
15:11
and we need them to mine it for us now.
15:13
But compassion is also equally at home
15:16
in the secular as in the religious.
15:19
So I will paraphrase Einstein in closing
15:22
and say that humanity,
15:25
the future of humanity,
15:27
needs this technology
15:29
as much as it needs all the others
15:31
that have now connected us
15:33
and set before us
15:36
the terrifying and wondrous possibility
15:38
of actually becoming one human race.
15:40
Thank you.
15:43
(Applause)
15:45

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About the speaker:

Krista Tippett - Journalist
Krista Tippett hosts the national public radio program "On Being" (formerly "Speaking of Faith"), which takes up the great animating questions of human life: What does it mean to be human? And how do we want to live?

Why you should listen

Krista Tippett grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. She studied history at Brown University and went to Bonn, West Germany in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study politics in Cold War Europe. In her 20s, she ended up in divided Berlin for most of the 1980s, first as The New York Times stringer and a freelance correspondent for Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, the BBC, and Die Zeit. She later became a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany.

When Tippett graduated with a M.Div. from Yale, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be. As she conducted a far-flung oral history project for the Benedictines of St. John's Abbey, she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that could open minds and enrich public life. These imagined conversations became reality when she created "Speaking of Faith" (now "On Being"), which is broadcast on over 200 US pubic radio stations and globally by NPR. From ecology to autism to torture, Tippett and her guests reach beyond the headlines to explore meaning, faith and ethics amidst the political, economic, cultural and technological shifts that define 21st century life. Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith and Einstein's God.

More profile about the speaker
Krista Tippett | Speaker | TED.com