Becca Balint: Making a commitment to compassion

A friend's 81-year-old uncle has been feeling intensely despondent lately about the state of the world. He feels we've lost our compassion; we've abandoned empathy. A quick read-through of the news might easily lead one to this conclusion.

Paul Ryan's recent statements about the GOP's proposal to replace the ACA (or Obamacare) - with a plan the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) indicated this week would eventually lead to the loss of insurance by 24 million Americans - are revealing. As numerous pundits have astutely pointed out, the House Speaker clearly never took Economics 101; he doesn't understand how insurance works or how risk pools operate.

Ryan groused that healthy people shouldn't have to pay for people who are sick: "So, the young healthy person is going to be made to buy health care, and they're going to pay for the person, you know, who gets breast cancer in her 40s " Um, exactly, Mr. Speaker. Insurance is a system in which people who are healthy help to pay for the people who are sick.

As MSNBC writer Steve Benin asserts, "If Ryan disapproves of this model...there are effectively three alternatives...The sick can try to pay for themselves, the government can pick up the tab, or the sick simply won't get care." It seems Ryan's counting on the last option.

The CBO report outlines, according to Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times, that "the bill would make health insurance so unaffordable for many older Americans that they would simply leave the market and join the ranks of the uninsured." If those older Americans are pushed out, the younger, healthier ones will remain. Sure, they will cost less to insure because they require less care. But that's morally bankrupt math.

This lack of empathy is not unexpected given the stance of many GOP federal legislators. From fighting about where transgender people can pee, to separating immigrant and refugee family members, to not speaking out in horror and anguish about the hate crime shooting of two Indian men in Kansas, it's difficult not to conclude that many have entirely abandoned their compassion.

Whenever I feel doubt and fear creeping in, I turn to Karen Armstrong to renew my spirit. Armstrong - a British writer, historian and former nun - has written several highly acclaimed books on religion and was awarded the Freedom of Worship Award by the Roosevelt Institute.

This award is given to those who demonstrate dedication to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" essential to democracy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and from fear. When awarding her in 2008, the institute celebrated Armstrong as "a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups."

Armstrong also won the prestigious TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue. She used her $100,000 prize money to found the Charter for Compassion.

This, in the words of writer Maria Popova, was "a multilingual effort to transmute the world's religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord, enlisting leading thinkers from a wide range of religious and moral traditions."

I own Armstrong's "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life"; it sits on my bedside table as a talisman. In it she quotes from the Charter for Compassion: "It is...necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity."

May this be my roadmap

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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