What is compassion? In Winnipeg, Canada, transit bus driver Kristian Doubledee brought passengers to tears when he stopped his bus to give a barefoot homeless man the shoes off his feet. In view of widespread socioeconomic and environmental challenges, could such acts of compassion transform our society? As we look toward the challenges ahead, could a culture of greater care and cooperation emerge to support us in moving toward a more promising future? The results from two major communities, Seattle and Louisville, suggest that the answer to that question may well be yes.
Six months ago I published the blog "Hunger Games -- The Price of Failed Transition" in response to the film The Hunger Games, which portrays a world unable to make the transition to some form of sustainable prosperity. In the film, people are barely surviving on a ruined Earth and in a society that has regressed to ritualistic, annual killings for past misdeeds. Not long after publishing that blog, I learned of an extraordinary competition between the cities of Seattle and Louisville to see who could be the kindest city!
Inspired by the "Charter for Compassion," Seattle declared itself a "compassionate city" in 2010. Now more than 80 cities and other communities around the world have joined the movement. This is where the fun begins: Confirmed as a "compassionate city" in November 2011, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer stated, "Earning an international reputation as a city of compassion will help set Louisville apart, identifying our community as a place where people want to live, and companies want to locate and grow their business."
Compassionate Louisville then unleashed an outpouring of community service during their one-week long "Give a Day" program. Roughly 90,000 volunteers performed more than 100,000 hours of community service in a single week in April. Acts of service included more than 30,000 meals packaged by volunteers for needy children and families around the world, more than 3,000 books donated for elementary and middle school students, nearly 1,000 blood donations, planting 200 trees in the city parks, and packaging and delivering 7 tons of medical supplies to a Mexican community of 20,000 to establish the town's first medical facility. Given its success, the city has been selected to receive the 2012 International Compassionate City Award by the Compassionate Action Network International Institution in Seattle.
Based on this impressive track record of kindness, Mayor Greg Fischer challenged Seattle and other cities to "Compassion Games" or "survival of the kindest." Fischer welcomed these potential rivals by saying, "I've said from day one that we're going to pursue being recognized as the most compassionate city in the world -- and if that prods other cities to try to outdo us, then 'game on.' In a competition centered on compassion, everyone wins!"
Thomas Williams, co-chair of the Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville, added:
"We challenge you to volunteer more, to give more blood, to share more resources and to top our collective mark with the goal of leaving our world a better place. If a city tops us, next year we will step up our devotion because we know that in our garden of compassion, there is still rocky soil and arid places that need tending; and there always will be. We are not so naïve as to think this is not a community with more than its fair share of pain and suffering. We know it is. We, however, believe compassion is good soil for the garden of community."
A few months later, Seattle rose to Louisville's challenge! Their 2012 Compassion Games lasted 30 days and Seattle contributed more than 150,000 hours of community service. Seattle had more than 40 sponsors and partner organizations with 38 planned action projects and events over the month. Volunteers handed out thousands of "Compassion Cards" that led to an unknown number of random acts of kindness ranging from park cleanup to donating blood, adopting an animal, reading to a child, saying "thank you" to a mentor, and visiting someone who is lonely.
Jon Ramer and other Seattle organizers are proposing that they consider this first year a draw and leave the 2012 Compassion Games tied, undecided -- and to be continued. However, the promising results have inspired them to explore forming a "league of compassionate communities" that will compete with kindness to discover the most compassionate places to live.
Given the success of the Compassion Games, the question arises: How can communities create opportunities for caring to be expressed more easily? Here are ten additional suggestions that may inspire further examples:
- Open up parks and public places for the free offering of music, poetry, and other arts.
- Add more benches, "nooks," and places to sit and interact.
- Create an edible city with food gardens everywhere. Bring nature into the community.
- Develop local skill-sharing networks (repair, cooking, gardening, elder care, etc.).
- Develop a mentoring "school" to teach these and other skills to others. Invite retirees to volunteer time for mentoring in their areas of expertise.
- Create special zoning districts for co-housing, eco-villages, and pocket communities.
- Limit commercial advertising and increase the presence of art and nature.
- Gather the written, visual, and oral history of the community. Collect stories of generosity and compassion as a legacy of the community.
- Honor contemporary local heroes, elders, youth, and others who contribute selflessly.
- Encourage local artists to develop murals depicting community history.
The success of community experiments in kindness shows the possibility of growing a world far different from that portrayed in the The Hunger Games. Compassion is the invisible glue that can build resilience and enhance the ability of a community to pull together in times of great stress and challenge. Now other caring communities such as Norfolk, Va., are getting engaged and working to become the next big winner in kindness. The future looks brighter each time I remember that The Hunger Games is a fictional movie and Compassion Games are happening in real life. Where The Hunger Games are the imagined price of a failed transition to sustainable prosperity, Compassion Games are the authentic reward for successful transition. May kindness be with you in the game of life!