I read something today that was among the most remarkable pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes a blog for The Atlantic. Coates, who is African-American, has been doing a lot of reading and blogging about the Civil War. In the post that struck me, he was writing about Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. It leads to a meditation on what it takes for him to understand such women, and why:
To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.
More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion.
In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There’s no power in that. I need to know more.
Those paragraphs just totally kicked my ass. “The hard work of compassion.” A compassion that is not charity, but that also does not excuse. Does not draw its eyebrows together and go “awww.” That rolls up its sleeves and says, you can understand this but it won’t be fun.
Reading this, I thought of a couple of recent reviews I’ve read of Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the reviews both* made clear that, while the author’s childhood was rendered almost unimaginably awful by her parents’ drug addictions, she has deep compassion and love for these flawed people.
As I sat there feeling stunned that an African-American can undertake the work of compassion toward Confederate women and a former cocaine baby can write compassionately about her mother, it dawned on me that it was Yom Kippur,** and appropriate to repent, or start the process of repenting, or start thinking about what a really good idea it would be to repent, of the many areas of my life in which I am too lazy for the hard work of compassion. And after all the repenting, it’s time to get off my ass and get to the hard work.
* OK OK the other review was in People Magazine. I’m traveling this week, so I’m fully caught up on celebrity news, fashions, and – um – books.
** I’m half Jewish and a half-assed Jew. It’s the closest generally acceptable label for my heritage and religious views, though still off by a considerable distance. Fair warning: there’s probably going to be future blog post about all that.
Update: TNC is also the genesis of the “drinking with white people” concept which I found so evocative. Also updated to correct an embarrassing error in punctuation. Not telling.