Social Consciousness: Awareness of the Needs of Others

It was a question that caught me a bit off guard. But I’ve learned to expect such questions from my friend. Over the last year and a half I’ve been corresponding with someone who would normally be outside of my social circle: a former professional football player turned coach who’s also a jazz musician. Our email discussions are often about social issues like race, class, and LGBT issues.

The other day, after a few emails about race, Coach asked, “Have you written any specific essays about how to accumulate a global sense of social awareness?” I had to think about that question for a bit. To be honest, it’s something I never gave much thought. I know that I’m more globally aware than most people, but I haven’t really thought about how that happened for me. So, Coach: this one’s for you!

My understanding of social awareness is fundamentally intertwined with compassion. To be authentically socially aware is more than just knowing about different problems in the world. Just knowing the facts about other countries and cultures seems quite hollow to me. Instead, authentic social awareness grows out of an acknowledgement that people in other places are essentially like me. They have hopes and dreams in life and want to lead productive, fulfilling and happy lives. Social awareness is recognizing that because of forces beyond our control, people suffer. The suffering of others is essentially no different from my own experiences of pain. But often, the cause of suffering that characterizes global problems is related to larger political and economic forces.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve watched thousands of refugees try to get to a new life in Europe. As horrible as their experiences are, they probably represent among the lucky ones. They were not killed in a complicated war waged since March of 2011. Most of the country has been bombed and is in rubble. In August 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that approximately a quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria. As of September 16, 2015, there were seven million Syrian asylum seekers registered by the United Nations. Seven million! The vast majority of asylum seekers live in refugee camps in other Arab countries.

Social consciousness? It is about something more than knowing these facts. Instead, it’s a matter of having compassion for these people we’ll never know who have lost so much and trying to figure out how to survive. The fortunate ones will make it to Western Europe or other countries. But the others? It’s a human tragedy that we cannot begin to understand.

A person can learn compassion with intentionality. It begins by opening oneself to recognize that the pain another experiences is essentially no different from the pain we each experience in life. We each have experienced loss, rejection, disappointment, or been the object of false accusations or ridicule. If we honestly acknowledge these painful experiences in our lives, we then can develop the ability to recognize that others experience pain and suffering for similar reasons. This is a seed for the experience of compassion.

Spiritual practices, like mindfulness and compassion meditation, open us further to recognizing the pain and suffering of others. In time, such practices can move us to respond to do something for others. That is a good and beautiful thing. As the Dali Lama teaches, we all are in need of compassion. He further points out that from the moment of our birth, as helpless infants, we needed the compassion of others to survive. When we recognize this, perhaps we can grow in our ability to be compassionate toward others.

Yes, there have been times in my life that have been difficult, lonely, and painful. It was because of the compassion of others who supported me that I grew past those experiences. Because of having received compassion, I have the ability to be compassionate toward others. As a Christian, I understand that when I in any way reach out to another with compassion, I am following the teachings of Jesus…..even if it’s just offering a bottle of water to a homeless person I pass on my way.

So, coach: you’ll need to let me know if I’ve said something that answers your question. I’m not sure that this is THE answer to your question, but it’s the best answer I have from my own life. I wonder if it resonates with you?

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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