Horror In Hartford... and the Healing of Karen
Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was one
of history's great pessimists.
His view of life is unremittingly dark. Yet even the old crapehanger himself
believed that we are ultimately redeemed by our empathy for our fellow man.
In his essay "On the Foundations of Morality," published in 1839,
Schopenhauer wrote, "How is it possible that suffering that is neither my
own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own,
and with such force that it moves me to action? ... This is something really
mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation, and for
which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is not unknown even to
the most hard-hearted and self-interested. Examples appear every day before our
eyes of instant responses in kind, without reflection, one person helping
another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for
someone whom he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than
that the other is in need and peril in his life."
I'm still trying to square these words - which strike most of us as
instinctively true - with what happened to Angel Arce Torres in Hartford, CT
As The Associated Press reported this morning, "A 78-year-old
man is tossed like a rag doll by a hit-and-run driver and lies motionless on a
busy street as car after car goes by. Pedestrians gawk but do nothing. One
driver stops but then pulls back into traffic. A man on a scooter circles the
victim before zipping away. The chilling scene - captured on video by a
streetlight surveillance camera - has touched off a round of soul-searching in
Hartford, with the capital city's biggest newspaper blaring 'SO INHUMANE' on
the front page and the police chief lamenting: 'We no longer have a moral
Although it was initially reported that onlookers didn't even bother to call
for help, it has since been discovered that four people did dial 911 shortly
after the accident.
Still, Torres - who at last report was alive but in critical condition at
Hartford Hospital - was not only left for dead by the perpetrator, but left
unattended by dozens of passers-by.
Over the last 24 hours, hundreds in the national media have expressed outrage.
It's not my intention here to pile on. Nor do I blame Hartford. If this could
happen in one city it could happen in another, perhaps many others.
However, I would like to make a simple observation. Without compassion, there
really isn't much to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
If we're deaf and blind to the suffering of those around us, what is the value
of language, intelligence, culture or technology? Without compassion, what is
left to redeem us?
Genuine compassion is not about thinking compassionate thoughts. It means
Not just in times of crisis - or during a tragedy like the one in Hartford this
week - but every day. After all, there is plenty of suffering in the world
right now. We have only to act.
If you haven't seen it, I strongly suggest that you take a few minutes to watch
scholar Karen Armstrong's acceptance speech after receiving the TED prize in
February. (The annual TED conference is where the world's most fascinating
thinkers and doers are challenged to give the talk of their lives - in 18
minutes or less.) Just click here.
In her talk, Armstrong argues that religion is not about believing certain
things. "Religion," she says, "is about behaving differently...
And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action: you only understand
them when you put them into practice."
I think this is true. You don't have to hold the "right" religious
viewpoint - or any religious viewpoint - to be compassionate. You need only be
a person of conscience.
So believe what you will. But recognize that we all have a choice. We can act
compassionately... or we can be a paler version of the bystanders in Hartford
The choice is ours.