The central premise of Frank Rogers, Jr.’s new book Practicing Compassion is that we are most human when we are most compassionate. And yet, Rogers argues, because compassion is not always an emotion that comes easily, it must become a subject of conscientious practice and study in our lives if we are to experience its full benefits, both personally and culturally.
As co-director for the Center for Engaged Compassion at the Claremont School of Theology, Rogers certainly has made a significant professional commitment to his subject matter. His purpose in writing Practicing Compassion is that “While spiritual teachers and advocates of the common good increasingly call for compassion, seldom does anyone explain precisely how to cultivate it!” This is an interesting claim, and—though there are certainly several significant works by respected thinkers like Henri Nouwen, Karen Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama on precisely this subject—a quick perusal of the Self-Help section of any bookstore will validate that by and large it seems the largest market is for books esteeming self rather than care for others.
But while I would never make the case that too many books can be written on the topic of compassion, I will note that to appreciate Rogers’ work, you must be prepared to (1) accept the premise that humanity is inherently good and (2) be prepared for a lot of work.
On the former point, I, as a Christian, had to suspend my disbelief as I worked through Rogers’ work. My understanding that humanity is tainted by sin made it frightening for me to imagine what a radical failure I would be in attempting to cultivate compassion without the strength of Jesus, no matter how well-laid-out my plan of attack. I know that if there is any good I do towards others it is by God’s grace and not in the least of my own strength. Rogers lays claim to no particular religious tradition, instead drawing on elements from a diversity of religious sources to make his arguments. This leads him to suggest, for example, that if we are ever feeling unloved or out of touch with the compassionate “pulse of humanity,” that we should remember those in our pasts who were kind of us, that we should uphold these people as saints by writing stories about them, putting their pictures in sacred places, and accepting that “people who extend compassion to us are guardians of our souls.” The point is that if we can become aware of the purported link of compassion and love between all of us, it will be easier to show compassion. This will be a challenging starting point for those of us who have concern over placing their self-worth and strength in human love, which is universally limited and flawed, far short of the divine love found in the Christian God.
Though I struggled against the fundamental understanding of the nature of humanity that grounded this text, Rogers does offer some transcendent advice. I was convicted, for example, by his point that “The people who repel us are our mirrors,” and I was motivated by his assertion that “[C]ompassion for another can…be cultivated. The essential precondition, however, is that we are open to a compassionate encounter.” His advice on how to avoid being “hijacked by our emotions” was helpful as well, especially his encouragement to pause in the wake of an extreme emotion, acknowledging that “What we need when we are activated like this is to wedge some space between our emotions and our behaviors, between our impulses and our actions.” This is a text that is, at the very least, a reminder of the value of love towards others and a source of encouragement for expressing this love with more intention and focus. And certainly there is room for one more text promoting such a noble ideal on our shelves.
Read an excerpt from Practicing Compassion at the Patheos Book Club here.
Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.