This essay is part of our online special issue honoring bell hooks
Trusting in the Power of Compassion
By Leah Milne
“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” (Angelou, hooks, and McLeod 1998). Spoken in an interview, these words highlight bell hooks’s broadest legacy, one increasingly relevant to us today, namely, her work on compassion. While I’m struck with the hope of these words, I’m more awed by the trust underlying them.
The pandemic continues to challenge the trust in compassion for which hooks advocated. It has brought us stories of devastation wrought not just by illness, but also by dispassionate responses to that illness—whether it is workers in toxic environments or people refusing to wear masks to protect others. Often in direct connection are stories of brutality against Black people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups perpetrated by institutions such as the police, governments, and schools. In so many ways, we have before us an ever-increasing need but also the biggest challenge: to trust in the power of empathy and compassion. While the loss of bell hooks would have been devastating at any historic moment, the timing of this loss of one of our nation’s leading authorities on compassion and empathy seems incalculable. Whether talking about feminism, the media, or issues related to sexuality or race, hooks’s underlying message always focused on collaboration and understanding, even with whom one might disagree.
I want to believe that the balance hooks strove for in bridging the gaps between accountability, forgiveness, and compassion would serve us well as we consider our next personal and political steps in this tumultuous era. Of course, hooks was no pushover. She believed in justice and responsibility, but she also made certain to couch her dissent with growth and community in mind. Maybe what is most important for us to take away from her work is that she also constantly reflected on whether she was striving for compassion in her actions by holding herself accountable, even as she admitted that doing so sometimes led to fear and failure. For her, instilling the habits of compassion—whether in the workplace, the classroom, or the community at large—was about incremental and persistent practice, self-assessment, and self-trust.
In reflecting on her loss, I’m struck by another recent loss of a thinker who similarly endeavored for and reflected upon the nature of compassion: cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, who died several months before hooks. In the introduction to Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, Berlant seemingly echoes hooks when she talks about compassion as complicated; it requires a sense of moral obligation and community that some people may not have the bandwidth or even the privilege to feel. However, compassion also requires a great deal of unearned trust in certain people or institutions. It requires trusting, for example, that change is possible and that hope is not solely for the naïve. Compassion requires trusting that systemic injustices exist even if one doesn’t experience or witness their effects or consequences directly. It requires thinking about not just an individual’s suffering but the potential suffering of a larger group or collective.
Recent years have taught us that it is not enough to simply hope for mutual kindness in the face of distress or conflict. Even as she asks us to trust, hooks does not advocate a passive approach to compassion. As she stated in All About Love: New Visions, we should consider “love as an action rather than a feeling” (hooks 2001, 13). That action includes the willingness to listen even when one experiences or speaks of pain or fear, even when in situations where inequality persists. Compassion constantly requires us to ask ourselves—with honesty and humility—whether we are moving forward with empathy for others.
Paired with the murder of George Floyd and a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes that continue to this day, the pandemic has challenged my fidelity to compassion and forgiveness more than any other moment in my life. Even though my personal experiences didn’t necessarily justify it, when I was younger, I nevertheless believed in the intrinsic and uncomplicated nature of compassion. Compassion was more of an abstraction rather than the deeply contextualized and challenging definition that hooks offered. But I find comfort in the fact that hooks struggled with this as well. When she said the above words about compassion and forgiveness in an interview with Maya Angelou, she grappled with the all-too-human urge to place people in categories of oppressor or oppressed. She realized that the “larger meaning of compassion” demanded that we “believe in the capacity of someone else to change towards that which is enhancing of our collective well-being. Or we just condemn people to stay in place” (Angelou, hooks, and McLeod 1998).
The struggle hooks had in this interview—the questions behind the questions she asked Angelou as she tried to understand the latter’s refusal to view the world’s seeming villains in binary terms—has become magnified and even hardened today. I admit that I have adopted the mode of so many others I know to not engage those who do not share a baseline belief in my humanity. But hooks ostensibly asks us to consider, at least momentarily, the humanity of others even when they do not return that consideration—even if the only end goal is to bring oneself joy.
And joy, which hooks often pairs with self-love, is her answer to the question of the struggle for balance between forgiveness, accountability, and compassion. She ultimately places the basis for compassion in love for one’s whole self, both one’s successes and failures. She insists that choosing joy and self-forgiveness can elicit compassion for others. And I try to believe her, I really do. I know it is part of my own journey of action and self-accountability to see whether I feel hooks’s words on compassion can withstand this challenging time. I do trust her, and I hope for the best.
Angelou, Maya, bell hooks, and Melvin McLeod. 1998. “‘There’s No Place to Go But Up’ — Bell Hooks and Maya Angelou in Conversation.” Lion’s Roar, January. https://www.lionsroar.com/theres-no-place-to-go-but-up/.
Berlant, Lauren, ed. 2004. Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. New York: Routledge.
hooks, bell. 2001. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.
Leah Milne is Associate Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches multicultural American literature. She is the author of Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narratives, which won the 2021 Midwest Modern Language Association Book Award. Her work has appeared in journals such as MELUS, African American Review, and The Journal of American Culture.