Kumbaya Comapssion? Or the Real Thing?

“Just another Kumbaya song” is a common side-lining of compassion.  Yet we want it for ourselves.  There’s the rub!  Compassion is a shift from “me” to “we” thinking. To be compassionate comes from inner strength and grounding.  What happens when a city signs up to be a Compassionate City?

On April 24 Seattle will become the first city in the world to officially affirm the Charter for Compassion.  It begins a 10 year Campaign for Compassionate Cities. Over half the world’s population now live in cities.  Will this movement transform how we think about one another beyond our own self interests?

I was involved in helping to organize the event known as Seeds of Compassion two years ago.  Over 150,000 people attended events over a four day period in Seattle, highlighted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was struck by the hunger of those attending.  For many it was a desire to shift the paradigm from “me” to “we”.

In late 2009 the Charter of Compassion was unveiled. It was the vision of Karen Armstrong, the insightful chronicler of religion today.  She used the cash award that came with the 2008 TED prize to offer a concrete way for transforming our thinking of what it means to be fully human. No wonder Armstrong will be in Seattle to speak and help celebrate that city becoming the first of many Compassionate Cities.

So is this all just feel good Kumbaya? Not for a moment.  If the universal spiritual and moral principle of compassion is about intentionally treating others as we want to be treated, it affects our choices.  This is about the sanctity of each person – with no exceptions.  The Charter for Compassion reminds us that respect, equity and justice for each human being is inviolable.  In the urban cauldrons of many cities that is a fragile concept.

The Charter for Compassion looses it steam when talking about what people should refrain from.  Yes, it is despicable to deny basic rights to another, to incite hatred, to act or speak violently.  In many cities such restraint would be a breath of fresh air to many! The Charter doesn’t pull off an irresistible invitation to the truth that there is no “me” without “we”.

Cities which sign on to the Campaign for Compassionate Cities will surely be held accountable to demonstrate how compassion is being restored to a central moral or ethical value?  It is not a bad place to begin by expecting – not encouraging – “accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures”.  Gender, sexual orientation and various family configurations will hopefully be added to this list by cities like Seattle.

Beyond any quibbles with the “committee-written” feel of the Charter, its purpose and intent is powerful.  It takes strength, courage and a commitment to the long haul to expect cities to be able to measure their compassion index.  Yes, there is a compelling need to “make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.”

Imagine the Compassionate Cities finding ways to celebrate the crossing of boundaries or the ways in which previously unknown interdependence is experienced between people. Now that would be an expression of enlightenment!

Karen Armstrong is to be admired for the vision of a Charter for Compassion galvanizing so many people.  It could be placed as a mantra in every kitchen.  Compassionate Cites is a movement that can make significant measurable changes to the lives of ordinary people.  Seattle embodies the best of American innovation and generosity of spirit in leading the way as the first city in the US and the world to sign up. Vancouver BC is likely to be the second city to sign up. How might it affect Cleveland, Boise, Fort Myers, Washington DC or your own city?

Compassionate Cities, like the Charter, will have their greatest impact in lives changed and transformed by everyday acts of compassion.  It is about the courage, strength and willingness of each person who commits to compassion as a way of life.

There’s no Kumbaya about “me to we”.  It’s the real thing.

To buy tickets for Karen Armstrong’s April 24 two presentations click here.

Robert V. Taylor – Being A Repairer of the World

Read or post comments


  1. Why would you use Kumbaya in a negative sense?

  2. Phrases like “Just another Kumbaya song” are in common useage to dismiss ideas of social transformation. When I chaired the King County Committee to End Homelessness I lost track of the number of times Kumbaya was invoked by cynics who were convinced that we’d just talk and not develop a plan with actionable and measurable results. I’ve noticed that it is most often invoked by those who care deeply but who perhaps don’t want to spend time on eforts that might not be transofrmative. Their ironic useage of Kumbaya was something I learned to pay attention to! I personally adore the song.

  3. What an amazing vision!
    In a world that the cities feel more and more like a concrete jungle with people fighting to find their place,toppling each other rather than helping each other, it is so refreshing to know that Seattle will lead the way in Compassion. I know that the wave of this action will take over all the cities in the world. There will be a transformation on earth!

  4. Catherine Collier Sloat

    I hope Seattle and its people live up to the long term expectations inherent in such an honor! I’ve never been there but I may consider moving there! I love living in NYC, and there are enclaves of empathy and compassion (where I tend to hang out), but I don’t believe it would work here. The politicians and police want to control behavior so it is difficult to express individuality in a compassionate manner. We can only do our best each day in the small opportunities to make another person’s life easier!

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