Professors spark dialogue about compassion
Martha Reilly | Monday, November 21, 2016
Two professors organized a lecture about kindness and open-mindedness Friday at Saint Mary’s.
Professor of English Laura Haigwood said introspection and self-transformation can lead to valuable societal change, but a failure to respect and understand others’ viewpoints contributes to a dangerous cycle.
“Shaming, judging, competition, anger and violence, no matter how just our cause may be, evoke defensive and retaliatory shaming, judging, et cetera from others,” she said. “Conflicts stalemate and degenerate into violence, and nothing and no one changes for the better.”
According to Haigwood, professors who openly discuss social justice issues in their classes can foster a comfortable environment of mutual support.
“Compassionate learning … is fluid, cooperative, collaborative, democratic,” Haigwood said. “Teachers can be learners, and students can be teachers.”
Patient listening and nonviolent communication are especially meaningful topics of discussion for those who have been affected by bullying, Haigwood said.
“I believe that compassion is the cure for bullying — both compassion for bullies and helping bullies themselves to practice compassion,” she said.
Assistant professor of communication studies Marne Austin said once people gain an acute awareness of themselves, they can more fully accept others. She led the group in a guided meditation exercise to demonstrate the interconnectedness between knowing oneself and exemplifying kindness in daily actions.
“You can have a person walk by, and they don’t have to say a thing, but you know that they’re having a bad day,” Austin said. “We limit our scope of understanding of each other, and thus of compassion, when we start to look at somebody and say we know what they’re going through.”
Austin said she hopes students resist selfish impulses and learn to genuinely empathize, regardless of other people’s reactions or hesitations.
“The thing with conversation and dialogue is the other person doesn’t have to know how to do it,” Austin said. “What matters is how you move through with it.”
Austin said self-reflection can expand consciousness while promoting acceptance and love for others, which will translate into gradual societal improvement. Students should view self-transformation as the first step in developing a more compassionate perception of the world, she said.
“The silence speaks to us in such beautiful and amazing ways and encourages us to listen in ways that we often don’t,” Austin said. “The idea with any kind of practice … is to perhaps not see it as the door but as the doorway.”
According to Austin, sometimes self-care can be misconstrued as succumbing to narcissistic tendencies, though it is actually a way to better relationships with others through exploring oneself.
“It starts with us,” Austin said. “Watch the world dance with you.”
Those who focus on maintaining empathy, even in divisive climates, contribute to a society that embraces differences, Haigwood said.
“I love the idea that we are living in an era that will go down in history as the age of compassionate awakening,” Haigwood said. “Let us not read the election last week as the last word on our historical moment. As the popular vote proves, and as the voting patterns of younger people dramatically illustrate, the unstoppable cultural movement of our time is indeed to be hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted.”