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  • Jack H. Bender

Discovering Compassion for the Poor

We have been discussing ways to find compassion for the poor.

In previous weeks I suggested that our own family’s history might give us sensitivity to those experiencing poverty. Education, learning about the challenges the poor face, might do that as well. And last week I wrote that we can take our gratitude for the gift of life and channel it toward improving the lives of others.

Another path toward compassion for the poor is havingunitive consciousness. The term “unitive consciousness” may be a little off-putting, but UC just means that we are conscious of the fact that “we’re all in the same boat together.” We are able to feel our connection with all living things. When we realize that someone is suffering, we begin to suffer.

Experts don’t agree on how many levels of human consciousness there are, but differences can be obvious to observers. At a certain level of development, seeing children separated from their parents at the border proves troubling to some, while others remain unphased. At mass shootings, some people risk their own lives to save others while others flee.

The feel-good videos of people being unusually kind to others are often evidence of unitive consciousness. While some may come by unitive consciousness naturally, others may have to do the inner work required to reach that level. The Aha! moments and “peak moments” that people experience are evidence that their consciousness is shifting or has shifted.

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton did the inner work to reach unitive consciousness. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he describes the revelation he had in downtown Louisville:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Whether given or earned, unitive consciousness gives us the experience of connection, “that the poor are ours and we are theirs.”


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