07/16/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

Dwindling Compassion

As someone dedicated to living a life of service to others, I have been struck recently by how little attention is paid to the amount of suffering in the world. Admittedly, my life is somewhat different than the lives of most, in that I have committed to such service as an integral part of training to be a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest. However, my sensitivity is enhanced by the fact that, like many, I also am living below the poverty level as a result of setbacks related to past illness, and an economic downturn that makes survival difficult. But it is hard to imagine how anyone who has functional awareness could avoid being sensitive to ever increasing levels of suffering, especially in a world where such information is delivered instantaneously by so many means.

What is alarming to me is the manner in which such suffering is treated. There are actually political candidates who suggest that the media should stop paying attention to poverty, and report on issues of "importance," like the "deficit." There are people who talk about something they call "compassion fatigue" in a political sense, as though people have a limited capacity to feel compassion for themselves, others, or the plight of sentient beings. For those who are in the helping professions, dealing with the most intractable and horrific situations in the world such as war and disease, such a term has relevance. It is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a very serious one. For people who are asked to contribute a few dollars to causes, watch a few documentaries, or just to stop being greedy, the term is little more than a way for those disinclined to serve needs outside of their own to rationalize their inaction.

Unfortunately, poverty and misery are becoming more commonplace in the United States because of a severe economic downturn that has existed for all of the 21st century thus far, and is actually worsening as the interconnected economies around the world contract. Governments are engaging in gruesome "austerity measures," which disproportionately impact the poor and working both economically and socially. But, objective public discussion of impacts of such measures is mostly limited to their impact on selected parties, like the wealthy, governments, and businesses. Little is mentioned directly related to the impact of such measures on the poor or working.

It is an odd twist of cognition that few who are aware of this world economic crisis appear to understand that the missing economic resources are actually going somewhere. The financial resources have not actually vanished into thin air. They are simply in the hands of fewer people -- they have been subject to a concentration of control of resources. Those who previously had a lot, now have even more. Those who had very little, now have even less. The process may be considered rational by some, but its rationality is challenged by the fact that it is a process which is clearly not sustainable. Sadly, the issue of sustainability does not appear to be of much importance in approaching our circumstances.

The notion of compassion in American society is variously interpreted across our population. Some consider it to be irrational and useless, while others consider it to be of supreme importance. An innumerable number of other interpretations exist as well. As compassion might be applied in response to poverty, the interpretations gather some level of force. People get very aggressive, and occasionally violent in their views on responsibility to the poor. There are those who believe that economic conquest is acceptable, even if it involves military action. The consequences to the poor in the regions of conquest are not often considered. They may not say this directly, but their promotion and support of aggressive development policies, many of which have led directly to military engagements to protect our perceived interests, speak loudly of their beliefs and motives.

In the United States, poverty is treated as a political issue for very limited debate, rather than a structural issue that needs to be dealt with at all levels of society. There is a quote widely attributed to Charles M. Schultz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, "No problem is too big to run away from." With regards to poverty, that appears to be the tacit mantra of American culture. Poverty is not addressed in any meaningful way by the United States House or Senate, and when it is mentioned as part of any pending legislation or budget matters, it is generally mentioned in an ancillary manner. Even the language employed in addressing assistance to the poor has evolved from morally acceptable idea of "assistance," to the less popular idea of "entitlements." The change implies laziness and greedy expectations on the part of recipients. It has happened largely at the urging of Neoliberal economic proponents, but is generally accepted by all involved as an attempt to nullify ongoing public calls for more to be done on behalf of the poor.

Ultimately however, the American people are not doing much better than their leaders in displaying compassion, or responding to poverty. Donations to charities have suffered recently, while sales of electronic toys like "smartphones," "tablet computers," "gaming consoles," and numerous other expensive items, have delivered record profits to the corporations that manufacture them. Even when news of suicides at China's Foxconn factories hit the news, fomented by low pay and deplorable working conditions, Americans did not respond by limiting their purchases of the offending products. There was public outcry in some quarters, but the pathetic idea of using nets to catch the despondent workers flinging themselves from windows and rooftops appears to have eased most consumers' consciences.

As hard as it may be for many people to accept, the United States is not a nation that is hyperfocused on liberty, equality, or even on economic mobility. Little money is spent to encourage entrepreneurship or create new small businesses, which is actually the sector of our economy that employs the largest amount of Americans. We are not increasing assistance to the poor as unemployment rises. And sadly, Americans appear to be reacting more harshly than ever to the plight of the poor, as the language of the Tea Party, Republican Party, Libertarian Party, and Democratic Party would indicate. Yes, even the "pro poor" Democrats fail to represent the urgency and depth of the circumstances faced by the poor in their language, or in the policies they pursue. All parties debate policies and expenditures employing cold statistics that do not reflect the actual human lives that they represent. Their actions imply a belief that life can be reduced to dollar values. For some of us, that is immoral, and lacking in compassion. We all occupy this planet together.

At some point, we may recognize that compassion and service to the poor are not luxuries, but are essential components of a strategy to ensure that our species survives and thrives on Earth. And, we will hopefully realize that our own mortality is proof of the delusional nature of property rights as a moral imperative. Those who believe that property rights are divine are likely not well, and at the very least they lack any real sense of spirituality.