Our society is fascinated by entertainers, sports heroes, and lawbreakers. Glance at the most-read list on most any online news site and you’ll find it overwhelmingly populated with articles that are variations on those themes. This isn’t a new trend. But what does it say about the stories we value, or to what we give our precious attention?
“People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell,” writes author and activist Elie Wiesel. I and others agree. Since most children don’t grow up to be entertainers or sports heroes, we’re telegraphing to them a dangerous message: fame — and even infamy — is what matters. No wonder, then, as we continue to click on reports of celebrity or crime, money-strapped news organizations continue to feed us an endless supply of those stories. In short, it seems, we get what we click, upholding the axiom that whatever we give our attention gets bigger.
In this election year we’re also frequently reminded about our political and social divides. Yes, there are important issues and real divisions, but that’s an old story, and it’s demoralizing. Rather than spurring us to action, our continual political stalemates deflate us into non-action, isolation, and cynicism.
As current and former media professionals in the Puget Sound area, with many years of experience in online, broadcast, and print journalism, a group of us have come together in a belief that our community can do better. We see everyday celebrities all around us, people whose stories, if told, can bridge divided communities, generate ideas to improve our collective lives, and inspire others to meaningful action. Such stories can make a difference for a neighbor, a neighborhood, a city or a state. We believe most people are looking for inspiration and solutions from their everyday world, the one to which they belong, where they have a chance to make a positive impact. They are looking for stories that at their heart involve compassion.
So how do we get there? We’ve come up with an idea for a starting point, and it kicks off shortly. “Stories of Compassion” is a storytelling competition for everyone in the greater Seattle region: student and professional journalists, bloggers, nonprofit groups who provide basic needs, businesses engaged in their communities, education projects, interfaith and faith-related outreach, poets, photographers, and videographers. The contest is about strengthening our greater community through the stories we tell about the lives we lead.
Stories of Compassion is part of an umbrella effort called “Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest,” and it begins Sept. 21. The Compassion Games are sponsored by Compassionate Seattle, United Way of King County, the City of Seattle, and King County. The games are intended as both a fun and serious way to renew regional dialogue about the value of compassionate action in our personal lives and in our communities. Opening day coincides with United Way of King County’s Day of Caring, one of the great compassion efforts our community participates in every year. Contest entries will be posted online at the Compassion Games site, a gallery for all to read, see and share. Winners will be announced later this fall. But it won’t end there.
Stories of Compassion and Compassion Games are meant to continue and expand a regional conversation about ways to foster compassionate action. Four years ago, the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited Seattle to talk about the need for a more compassionate world, and tens of thousands of people pledged to identify, uphold and actively cultivate compassion in their communities. Inspired by their message against a backdrop of deeply partisan political and economic division, local organizations Compassionate Seattle and Compassionate Action Network International gelled around the message that compassion can bridge differences, create understanding and foster peace.
In 2010, Seattle became the first city in the world to affirm the Charter for Compassion, a document supporting compassion as the central tenet, the Golden Rule, among the world’s peoples, a necessary undertaking to encourage peace, nonviolence and understanding.
Other cities have followed Seattle’s lead, including Louisville, Kentucky. Recently, Louisville proudly counted more than 90,000 compassionate acts in one week. Now, they’ve thrown the challenge our way, and the Compassion Games is Seattle’s response. There are many ways to take part, and Stories of Compassion is but one.
To be clear, we are not arguing that stories about compassion aren’t being told. They are, every day, across varied mediums both local and national. But they are drowned in the daily tidal wave of violence and name-calling that too often is packaged as the day’s news. We’d like to see more stories that point us toward solutions to problems that plague our communities, and to make those stories easier for anyone to find. We intend to maintain a web presence that continues to collect these stories, an easy way to locate and share them well beyond the competition.
We envision a future when such stories dominate the “most read” list on news sites.
If we can give some attention to stories that matter, stories that bridge the divides between us and show us everyday solutions and pathways to alleviating suffering in our own community, then we can strengthen our communities. We encourage you to contribute your stories of compassion, for we cannot learn what we haven’t shared.
Note: Stories of Compassion editors’ group includes Anne Stadler, former KING/NBC public affairs veteran; Rita Hibbard, executive director of Compassionate Action Network International and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor and founder of InvestigateWest, an investigative online journalism nonprofit; Brook Stanford, three-decade KOMO/ABC reporter; Chris Tugwell, YMCA regional director of education, employment and technology programs, and editor of the community youth blog Puget SoundOff; Andrew Himes, author and editor, president of Voices Education Project; and Marilyn Turkovich, director of Voices Education Project.