Embracing compassion as the Ridgefield way

The blossoming of Ridgefield as a more compassionate community — a town where people strive to treat their fellow humans with understanding and respect, and contribute to goodness and peace in the world — is the goal of a gathering Sunday.

And anyone interested is invited, for compassion moves in every human heart.

“We may not be born saints, but we are born with compassion,” said Dr. Christopher Kukk, “It’s a natural instinct, woven into the biology of what makes us human.”

A professor at Western Connecticut State University, Dr. Kukk is the author of The Compassionate Achiever: How Helping Others Fuels Success — a book that has helped inspire the Ridgefielders organizing what’s being called a “compassionate retreat“ this Sunday, June 9, at Scotts Ridge Middle School auditorium. The event starts at 3 and is scheduled to go on to 6. The doors open at 2:30.

The gathering will be organizing to put wind in the sails of a townwide effort to make Ridgefield more compassionate — now, and on into the future — and work toward getting the town to embrace a document called the Charter for Compassion, a growing worldwide commitment to this principle that “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” in the charter’s words.

Ridgefield shows much compassion. But it also has work to do, as evidenced by a string of incidents in recent years — the swastika graffiti that has appeared more than once, some racist social media postings.

“Ridgefield is a very compassionate town. There are endless Facebook postings of people that need help for this, that and the other — and within minutes, they’re overwhelmed,” said Dr. Carol Mahlstedt, a psychologist. “We have a very compassionate town. But yet, underneath, there is this — these times, when incivility or hostility or outright hatred is apparent.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi sees the need, and is involved in the effort — he’ll speak briefly to kick off Sunday’s gathering.

“For those who grew up here, Ridgefield was a different town. People were more attentive and concerned about their neighbors, and all of the children in town — and most people are today. But we’ve seen a decline in civility, whether on the athletic fields or in society itself,” Marconi said.

“And I think we need to stop and pause — I think we’ve lost our way, and we need to pay better attention to compassion.”

The incivility and hostility evident at times in recent years suggest a problem that won’t be easy for well-meaning town leaders to get their hands on and deal with.

Mass messaging is now anonymous, instantaneous, virtually free, and available to almost anyone.

“I think the technology is partly to blame here — the filters have been removed,” Marconi said. “No one takes responsibility for or accountability for their actions, and statements made that are hurtful to many people. And that’s an unfortunate state of affairs for us.”

Charter for Compassion
One goal is for Ridgefield to embrace the Charter for Compassion — an affirmation of shared values that have been adopted by communities around the world.

“We’re going to have a series of events through the next year that, hopefully, will lead to a signing of the Charter for Compassion,” Marconi said. “...And, more importantly, to become a compassionate community.”

Translated into more than 30 languages, the Charter for Compassion has been backed by more than 400 towns and cities in 45 countries, and endorsed by over two million individuals.

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves,” the charter begins.

One of its commitments is “treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The charter confronts communication’s the dark side: “It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and emphatically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.”

The charter urges all men and women “to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”

It calls on parents and religious leaders “to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures” and urges “an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.”

“...Compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries,” the charter states. “Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Committee at work
A wide range of town leaders — First Selectman Marconi, members of the clergy, educators, business people, healers such as Dr. Mahlstedt — are part of the Ridgefield Charter for Compassion Committee, also called the Compassionate Ridgefield Committee. At Sunday’s meeting, they’ll be leading the effort, breaking people into small work groups to address a variety of issues and concerns

“There are 400 cities across the world that have signed on to the charter,” said Dr. Mahlstedt. “...In Ridgefleld, we’re hoping to officially join the Charter for Compassion next May — May 20, which will be our public acknowledgment of our commitment to be a compassionate community.”

Pastor Deborah Rundlett of Ridgebury Congregational Church is part of the effort.

“We know from grounded research that compassion is a core practice essential for the flourishing of not only individuals, but also for communities,” said Pastor Rundlett. “Indeed, the flourishing of the one is impossible apart from the flourishing of the whole. My hope is that we will not only embed compassion as a value, but embody it as a community practice.”

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray of Temple Shir Shalom got involved early on.

“I was uplifted by the idea and creation of the Compassionate Ridgefield Committee, especially after several swastikas were found in Ridgefield,” she said. “I’m grateful to the truly gifted and caring members of the committee who have enormous hearts and a vision for a more compassionate community here in Ridgefield.”

Dr. Mahlstedt sees it as a commitment to the younger generation.

“In order for our children and families to flourish, we need to sort of change the culture — and that’s what Compassionate Ridgefield hopes to do.

“When you look at how many of our teens and young people, — even elementary schoolchildren — are stressed and anxious, avoiding school,” she said. “...The social culture has become quite complex with the onset of social media.

“Many kids sense of self-worth and self-esteem is kind of rooted now in how many ‘likes’ they get on Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, and it makes them very anxious.”

But it’s not just the kids.

Dr. Mahlstedt recalled a meeting of the compassion committee last November, with people sharing stories.

”A kid got up and talked about how she loved reffing kids sports but she wasn’t willing to do it any more because the parents were so difficult,” she said.

About 120 people are signed up to attend Sunday’s meeting, but the group is looking to grow, recruit more friends and neighbors — especially high school kids — to the cause, Dr. Mahlstedt said.

People interested coming to Sunday’s event are asked to let organizers know by emailing: compassionproject06877@gmail.com.

“We are launching the Compassion Ridgefield initiative to address our need for broader and deeper compassion for all our citizens — and less incivility, racism, anti-Semitism, hostility and hatred,” Dr. Mahlstedt said. “This will be a ‘living, breathing’ initiative — not a ‘one and done’ — that will hopefully last over the millennium.”