Compassion is an essentially human quality. If you doubt it, read the story below and see if you are able to remain unmoved by it[1].

“I rode to the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be the last ride of my shift, I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the front door. ‘Just a minute’ answered the frail elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause the door opened. A small woman in her nineties stood in front of me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillow-box hat. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked like no one had lived in it for years. The furniture were covered with sheets, there was no clock on the wall, no knickknacks or utensils anywhere. ‘Would you carry my bag to the car’ she said. I took her suitcase to the car and then return to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly across the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘Oh, it’s nothing’ I told her ‘I just try to treat my passenger as I wish my mother to be treated.’ ‘Oh, you are such a good man’ she responded. When we got to the cab she gave me an address and asked ‘Could you drive me through downtown?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not the shortest way to go’ and she answered quickly ‘I don’t mind,’ she said, ‘I am in no hurry. I am on my way to a hospice.’ I looked in the rear view mirror and her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left.’ she continued in a soft voice ‘The doctor said I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked. For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she once worked as an elevator operator. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she danced as a girl. Sometimes she would ask me to slow down in front of a building or a corner and we would just sit staring into the darkness. At the first hint of the sun creasing the horizon she suddenly said ‘I am tired now. Let’s go.’ So we drove to the address she gave me. It was a low building – a convalescent home. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. ‘How much do you owe you?’ she asked reaching into her purse. ‘Oh, nothing.’ I said. ‘But you have to make a living’ she answered. ‘There are other passengers.’ I responded. Almost without thinking I bent and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly. ‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy.’ She said. ‘Thank you.’ I squeezed her hand and walked into the morning light. Behind me a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I did not pick up any more passengers that day. I drove aimlessly lost in thoughts. For the rest of the day I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the longer route or honked and drove away? On a quick review I don’t think I have done anything more important in my life.”

While compassion is a universal human quality it does not seem to be expressed in our culture and in the functioning of our modern societies.

I live in the US, the richest nation on Earth and about 13% of Native Americans lack access to clean water, about 50 million Americans are food insecure and about 55 millions do not have access to adequate healthcare. Probably, the majority of the adult working population is unemployed, underemployed or engaged in jobs that are not personally meaningful nor expressing one’s unique gifts and talents. Our money and banking system and our current economic system (capitalism) have shaped our cultural norms and the functioning of our society at large in ways antithetical to our compassionate instincts.

The concept of scarcity and the need to compete for scarce resources is the result of the scarcity of money – a faulty design feature of our money system. Capitalism, our current economic system, is built on the commodification of nature and labor, the privatization of the commons and on the reliance on market mechanisms for the production and allocation of products and services including those necessary for the satisfaction of basic human needs.

From a cultural point of view, such systems have obscured the extent to which we are all interdependent not only with each other with the other species inhabiting the natural ecosystems of our planet. There is no such thing as individual salvation and only when we all collectively pursue the health and well being of every person and every ecosystem on this planet can we have a chance at long term survival.

Let’s remember that the current distribution of wealth and income, and therefore of political power, is not based on an immutable law of nature but on a human construct that can be changed. Case in point the current discussion in the US House of Representatives to cut the food stamp program by $40B in the next 10 years and the secretive negotiation on the Trans Pacific Partnership, both steps away from building a compassionate and just society.

A vision for the US as a compassionate society could include a national dividend allowing every person in the US to meet its basic needs for food and shelter. Universal health care with an emphasis on prevention, health maintenance and nutrition education would be provided through a single payer health insurance system. Education would be available for free to anyone up to and including college[2].

Natural ecosystems including rivers, lakes, forests and agricultural land would be held in common stewardship and managed with the primary goal of preserving and enhancing the ecosystem services they provide. All of the above could be financed through a combination of debt-free money issued directly by the US Treasury and with a tax on excessive concentration of wealth and income.

Imagine what such society would look like. There would be no homeless or hungry people. The arts, education, healing and caring professions would flourish with more and more people connecting to their deeper purpose and meaningfully contributing to society based on their unique talents and skills. As industrial agricultural practices will be discontinued and transformed into organic, appropriate scale, labor intense farming practices, we will repopulate rural communities, provide meaningful employment for a generation of young farmers and increase the availability of organic healthy and locally produced food around the country. We will reverse the century old depletion of top soil and start rebuilding the fertility of the soil at the same time sequestering large amount of CO2 therefore helping stabilize the global climate. Large scale bioremediation, reforestation and restoration of natural habitats will be possible ushering in a generation of eco-literate stewards of nature. People would be able to enjoy more leisure time and be able to more actively participate in the political life of their communities and the country as a whole. Students will be able to pursue their own vocation free of the burden of debt and the constraints it currently imposes on their choice of field of study and employment.  All this is possible once we start designing our large systems and institutions in a way that is compatible with our innate compassion.


[1] As related by Mark Coleman on June 29th, 2013 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center

[2] Scandinavian countries go even beyond that and also provide a stipend of about $1,000 a month to all students attending college.


Author: Rebekkah Hilgraves Broadcast and recording engineer, media production manager, cable monkey, marketing dork, project manager, chief cook and bottle-washer. Author, storyteller, shit-stirrer, enemy of the people.

2 Replies to “What Would a Compassionate Society Look Like?”

  1. Is there any evidence that compassion and empathy are on the rise?

    Does it make sense to even contemplate tracking that would compare such a nuanced and important shift in well-being to the clumsy (and cantankerous) tracking of economic output, like Gross Domestic Product? Bhutan tracks Gross National Happiness, should we track the United States’ “Polite Domestic Compassion”?

  2. You and Mark Coleman are good taxi drivers, Marco. And we need a big metaphorical taxi, to be sure. And a better destination. With Love.

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