Nostalgia for the Light and Finding Compassion

I had three interconnected experiences yesterday that had me mulling over the idea of “compassion” as an exercise of faith. One was a podcast, the other a post from a friend, and the final one a movie:

This was an interview and discussion with Paul Gilbert, an evolutionary psychologist whom founded what is now called “compassion focused therapy” (CFT). In the interview, Gilbert explains the development of this practice as rooted in the following understanding of the world and human development- compassion as a working idea in nature, grew from the instinctual need for a species to care for its offspring. As we develop human awareness, compassion evolves and develops according to our ability to wonder, ask, and eventually locate how and where we can effectively “be” compassionate. This is where, as evolutionists would posit, we grow from a tribal perspective into a necessary universal application of compassion as a working idea.

The idea of compassion in this view is dependent on the affirmation that we have come to “understand” or instinctually know that we (ourselves, or our smaller tribe) are in fact better off when the world is a more compassionate place, and that the same instincts that drove us to care for our offspring (our survival) are found in our care for others around us.

Three things emerged from this for him- one, the reason we are led instinctually in this direction is because the most powerful are the minority and those who stand to benefit the most from compassion are the majority of the human population. Second, it is driven by self preservation, and by nature is a self driven, instinctually driven, evolutionary concern. And third, by nature of these first two realities, it remains predicated not on compassion as a given and forming virtue, but rather on compassion as a necessary human response predicated on our survival and the greater good of our species. It does not protect against forms of tribalism or power necessarily, but rather it drives our natural awareness of something we ser as instinctuallyus dangerous and a threat. We are compassionate because our instincts have understood its value in light of oppressive systems of power, and we are wired to know that if we do nothing, we and our tribe will also be negatively impacted.

This brought me back to when I was doing my Masters. When I was in the process of doing my Masters, I actually started in the study of Christian Psychology and Counseling. And one of the most startling realities I encountered was that, for all the ways in which the Christian faith expresses compassion as a given virtue rather, when we walked through the stories of those who were in the program with me, every single person shared and admitted how their experience of the Church had robbed them of their ability to find compassion for their own story, their own person. In fact, this is what had motivated many of them towards this program. They had been hurt and damaged, and wanted to find purpose in helping the hurt and damage in others.

One of the hardest parts of the course was the idea that the main part of this program was helping us to face ourselves. The understanding was that we cannot gain compassion for others until we gain compassion for ourselves. And so we were asked to go through counselling ourselves as a way of learning how to care for others.

One of my facebook friends posted yesterday in response to the tragic reality unfolding in Minneapolis and across America that, while he can’t fully understand what it is that people of color are experiencing, he wanted to find a way to use the recent tragedy to grow in compassion for their experience by beginning with his own experience of struggle and using that to form empathy. This was incredibly astute and aware, and had me thinking about all of the ways this is so difficult for so many. We much prefer to look outwards rather than inwards.

There was something powerful and revealing about the process that I was invited to go through in my first year of that Masters program. I came to learn that finding compassion for myself, for my own pain, was actually one of the least selfish things that I could engage in when setting myself within God’s story. Because the purpose of this process was to enable us to move outwards into the story of others. We don’t have compassion for others because it is good for us, as the evolutionary psychologist posits (that being our natural driving force), we enter into that incredibly difficult place of uncovering ourselves for the good of others. That becomes our motivation- a given virtue.

I recently watched a powerful documentary called Nostalgia For the Light. I’ve linked my review here and will let that speak for itself, but one of the most powerful parts of this film for me was the way it connects our discovery of the distant past (astronomy), our discovery of the recent past (archeaology), and self discovery (compassion and formation). What guides this, the scientific process the film says, is actually an innately religious question, which is why are we here? What is the reason for our existence? This is the question that drives discovery. And yet humanity has a very real tendency to engage in discovery for the sake of progress rather than formation, ignoring our more recent past for the sake of a future that is, rather, driven and connected to our distant past (which is built on the notion of survival). This future-distant past dichotomy is what keeps us from being held accountable in the present because it largely removes us from its responsibility. Through the study of the distant past we can shape our role and our responsibility towards the future. That is the human endeavor.

The title of the film, broken up between those two phrases, “nostalgia” and “for the light”, is built on this idea that light by its very nature represents “the past”, and that all that we see and experience in the present is rooted in the past, occupying that space between when it occurs and when it translates to our senses and our awareness. The light (discovery) is by nature an exercise of nostalgia, a locating of our present in the grander story. This what discovering space is all about. Thus, the purpose of discovery, which can be noted as a revealing or uncovering of the past, is so that we can be formed by it and shaped by it. But where it shapes us is within our human history, the recent past, the past we tend to most readily ignore in or push for progress, and it informs how we are meant to live in the present- what gives this life meaning.

We ignore our most recent past, the stuff we tend to want to ignore for the sake of the bigger picture, because this stuff seemingly bogs us down and gets in the way of progress. It is messy and hard and complicated. The scientists in this film, in this shared Desert where the distant snd recent past come together, eventually end up unearthing evidence of a genocide, something that forces them to have pause and try to make sense of something that is difficult into the bigger picture, that which is being uncovered by the light of distant past. This is where both the recent and the distant past need each other in order to find meaning in what feels meaningless.

The powerful truth about faith is that it calls us towards given virtues such as forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and formation by nature of our faith in the truth that this is the work God has done and is doing (the New Heavens and the New Earth). The Christian truth says that God, the one who is being unveiled through our Discovery of him, is not in fact distant, but near and with us. He is the one that brings together and distant and recent past and helps us to reconicle the tension by placing it within a given vision and promise for our future. Where we uncover genocide, we find the infinite God broken with us, suffering with us, struggling with us on the Cross. This is where we find compassion.

The future is unveiled to us in the present then by way of His Resurrection promise, only it requires us to face the messiness in the process, to enter into the muck of our past in order to be formed in the present. And it is because Christ had compassion on us in our suffering, in our brokenness and in our failure that we become truly free and motivated to find compassion for others, bringing from the more recent past a greater and realized vision for our present. Finding and locating that compassion in our lives, and for ourselves then, can help us discover it in the experiences of others, and thus find meaning in how we move forward together.

Here is my full review of the film on Letterboxd:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism” – Ephesians 4:1-3

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.- Hebrews 4:16

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.- Galatians 6:2

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,- Colossians 3:12

Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.- 1 Corinthians 10:24

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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