On August 23, 1989, almost two million people held hands and scarves spanning 419 miles across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The event was part of a larger struggle challenging the Soviet Union's domination of the Baltic region. Demonstrators kept their spirits up by singing, drawing on the region's long history of massive choral music gatherings events celebrating Baltic culture and history. The effort eventually resulted in the independence of the three countries from Soviet control. To see a trailer for the inspiring documentary chronicling what came to be known as The Singing Revolution, click here.
Inspiration is a friendlier name for an emotion psychologists call moral elevation. It's our emotional response when we witness an act of moral beauty. Our hearts are touched, the world lights up, and we feel a spontaneous desire to be and do better. In the case of The Singing Revolution, we see an enormous crowd of vulnerable people standing up to a brutal regime, not only incredibly brave but also creating something beautiful in the moment. We are reminded, at least for a moment, that such a thing can happen and that we can imagine ourselves being a part.
Stories of heroism are inspiring, and they are all around us. Opportunities for inspiration also go beyond actual events. They account in part for the incredible success of the Harry Potter series. Music, art, dance and theater at their best all have the power to evoke an intense sense of the greater possibilities in ourselves and others.
A moment of inspiration can stop us in our tracks and set us down facing in an entirely new direction. Spiritual heroes often describe a watershed moment in their lives when they were overcome by an inspiration that triggered a long and sometimes painful process of moral transformation. Many of us can look back on people or moments that were turning points, that inspired us to aim higher, try harder, see more in ourselves and the world. The feeling of inspiration is particularly important in our cynical age, when so many we have looked up to turn out to have feet made of clay and sometimes knives in their back pockets.
We've all grown used to youtube moments going viral. Some explode onto the scene because they're funny, others because they're controversial. Some of the best hit a nerve because they inspire us to compassion.
Compassion lies at the core of every great spiritual tradition. It is a feeling of care and concern for others, especially for those who are suffering. Compassion is distinct from pity and empathy. Pity is often criticized as patronizing, springing essentially from a one-up position. Most of us resist being the object of others’ pity. Empathy involves feeling another’s pain as if it were our own, and brain imaging demonstrates the pain centers of empathetic individuals’ brains light up when they observe other’s suffering.
Compassion goes a step beyond empathy to include an impulse to take action to help. Compassion includes an element of discomfort that prompts us to do something to relieve other’s difficulty. It is at the heart of every great heroic story. When we witness compassion we are inspired to be braver and more generous ourselves.