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Oppression falls to Compassion

by Sonja Persram

Published in the Toronto Star, April 1, 2003

Our world is changing rapidly and this causes us unrest.


Threat of war, pollution damage to our earth, water and sky, freedom restricted, threat of terror, all produce in us an anxiety that may not respond to our usual methods of calming.


Unrest in us takes many forms anxiety, depression, irritability, nastiness, or simply a lower tolerance. I've noticed the irritability quotient of people these days has risen. We have a lower frustration tolerance; it takes less to make us upset and longer to recover our composure.


When we feel helpless in the face of aggression, this could add to our daily frustrations and bring on depression. Our reactions to being far from the scene of potential conflict include feelings of isolation and powerlessness to prevent destruction.


But we have shown world leaders that we are not helpless.


Hundreds of thousands across Canada and millions around the world demonstrated in the last few weeks against the war in Iraq.


However, other sources of our feelings of isolation arise from the fewer social contacts we may have as our world becomes more complicated.


For instance, David Engwicht in his book Reclaiming Our Cities & Towns noted that as cities grow, roads widen, buildings become farther apart and our perceived neighbourhood shrinks until it may be only around our own dwelling. People who once chatted on stoops no longer feel the camaraderie and comfort within their neighbourhoods to do so. Widened roads also mean children are not safe playing in the street and parents drive them to playgrounds. As people spend more time in their cars and less time walking or biking, the number of spontaneous exchanges decreases.


A spontaneous exchange refers to an unplanned encounter. For example, while someone walks from point A to point B, enroute she may meet an elderly, infirm Chinese neighbour, a youth walking his playful dog, or see the slow unfolding of a sunset. All these allow the walker to experience, for example, the pain of growing older, the excitement of another culture, the joy of an animal at play, or inspiration from a naturally beautiful scene.


People in cars do not have the opportunities for spontaneous exchanges that walkers, bicyclists, or those on public transit do. We are more human, we allow ourselves to mature emotionally when we deliberately expose ourselves to unstructured exchanges.


So, how can we "combat" the feelings of unrest that arise from our current environment and from world events? We can assume that we can make a difference in our lives, our loved ones, and our surroundings. And we can act on this assumption.


We can broaden our concept of neighbourhood. If people on the other side of the world are suffering, we can connect with their counterparts on Canadian soil. We can talk about our experiences and our dismay over current events, with our neighbourhood grocer, our checkout clerks, our variety store owners, our fellow transit riders.


Churches and other faith centres are opening their doors, not just for contemplation, but for discourse.


We can build bridges to people through our understanding of their situations. We can speak with the homeless people around us and share our good fortune with them. Better yet, we can help reduce the poverty of circumstance that contributes to homelessness. We can look into the eyes of someone we love, and show by our daily actions that we care about them, not just through buying into merchants' hype on Valentine's day.


We can do our bit to recycle, buy items that have less packaging that would have gone to landfill, select products that would not be fodder for toxic dumps at their end-of-life or make us fodder after breathing or ingesting them; choose transportation that won't add to our ecological or taxpayer debt load. We can consume less. We can give more. My building has a table on which we place any household items we wish to share. They disappear usually within an hour or two. You can do this, too.


In short, to overcome oppression, we can have more compassion. For ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours, and for our planet. That is the real battle humanity must fight. Compassion is the kind of contagion that can tip the balance in our country and globally. Let's not become immune to it.


Sonja Persram is a former member of the Star's community editorial board.


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