Downtown Lecture Series Will Examine the Complexity of Compassion

Sept. 23, 2021

The past year and a half have been rough. With COVID-19 fears or illness, social isolation, economic uncertainty, political strife and racial conflict, many people are anxious and struggling.

So when Maribel Alvarez, associate dean for community engagement in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and John Paul Jones III, dean of the college, began brainstorming topics for this year's Downtown Lecture Series, they wanted to pick a theme that could shed some metaphorical light onto a dark time.

"We know that COVID has had a tremendous impact on people's sense of mental and spiritual fatigue," Alvarez said. "And the question remains: How do we get along with each other with our political divides? The theme of compassion surfaced in the middle of that conversation."

Next up: Making sure the college had a range of experts to provide an interdisciplinary examination of the topic, which is a hallmark of the series. Right off the top, Leslie Langbert sprang to mind. She is the director of the college's Center for Compassion Studies and holds deep knowledge on the topic. And when the deans dug some more, they uncovered a deep vein of compassion-related research running through the college, including research on poverty, human rights on the border, intercultural communication, climate change and the neuroscience of caring.

For the series, Alvarez and Jones decided to feature four approaches to compassion: spirituality and mindfulness; psychology and cognitive science; social conflict and public opinion; and racial justice and transformation.

Titled "Compassion: A Tool for Human Understanding and Liberation," the series will be held in-person at 6 p.m. every Wednesday in October at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St.

Langbert will examine the power of practicing compassion in community. Jay Sanguinetti, associate director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, will address the ways our brains are wired for compassion. Maha Nassar, associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, will speak on the shifting U.S. conversation about Palestinians and Israelis.

The fourth lecture will feature Lama Rod Owen – a Buddhist minister, teacher and activist – who will examine compassion as a tool for racial justice forged out of anger and frustration.

Not all of the topics might immediately spring to mind when one thinks of compassion. That's intentional, Alvarez said.  

"With every topic we have featured in the Downtown Lecture Series, whether it's food or happiness or woman power, we have always aimed to provide more nuance, texture and complexity to what would be an off-the-shelf, shallow understanding of the concept," Alvarez said.

"The same thing is true with compassion," Alvarez continued. "When you research compassion, you begin to see that compassion is not just something that comes down from heaven as a warm feeling that envelops you. It's actually more like a discipline, like going to the gym. You have to enhance the muscles that help you to be compassionate."

Compassion is also a core value of the University of Arizona.

"I think compassion is a value that grows out of our general mission of being the 'People College' and being a university that is fundamentally in the business of humanity in the larger sense – human knowledge, human experience and the formation of human beings that are contributing back to society," Alvarez said.

What does Alvarez hope attendees will gain from attending the lectures?

"I always hope that people can get what I call a ledge, a place to stand, in the abyss," Alvarez said with a laugh. "That's what new knowledge can provide: a ledge where you can stand and rethink what you thought you knew, and maybe what you learn can help you cope better and have more meaningful relationships."