Concentric Circles of Compassionate Support

Adrienne Carter works on a contract basis for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) along with her full-time job in British Columbia. In a recent email to her I described the model of the work she does in some of the most horrendous war torn areas, as “concentric circles of compassionate support.” Her response was, “What a good description of what we all could be doing with and for each other.”

I have never read any of her publications about her work, if they exist. (Perhaps this happens all too often in our closest, most intimate friendships?) From what I understand of the model she offers in other countries includes grassroots training of individuals and groups to form these concentric circles of compassionate support. They learn to surround, not only those who were direct victims and witnesses of gross human right violations and violent acts of blind-hatred against children, women and men, but also those who heard those stories at varying degrees of distance, with healing layers of real listening. For it is not only those who have directly experienced rational cruelty but also those who at-risk of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue or secondary post-traumatic disorders who could be supported and protected in these ever-widening ripples.

Adrienne has continued to offer her services to First Nations (and Inuit ?) communities in Canada but as yet there has been no response. Perhaps there is a reluctance or a repugnance to compare the youth suicide epidemic, human rights abuses regarding access to education, housing, employment and health services (legacies of muddled administrative meddling, intergenerational mistakes on the part of those one-sidedly handed power over Canadian aboriginal affairs (for example the ongoing CAS child-sweep-ops), systemic and conversational racism, that have caused intergenerational loss of parenting skills, endemic poverty, violence against women, child abuse, and the social challenges that accompany such conditions, as comparable to tragedies in far-off less democratic countries.

Perhaps when Rwandans (for example) and Canadian First Nations take part in open, frank, public, robust conversations about healing from trauma, we will all become more compassionate and more effective in dealing with these home-grown sources of shame and embarrassment.

In her email Adrienne Carter reflected on a book she’ s been reading that very deeply touches her heart. It is called An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty First Century by Dr. James Orbinski.

Dr. James Orbinski is one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international humanitarian aid organization that provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 70 countries that has been honoured with the Nobel Peace prize. Dr. James Orbinski described his own role in the midst of the the most horrendous suffering of people including the famine in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda and how it changed him as a person as he reflected.

Adrienne is one of the few people to which I have entrusted my ongoing dilemma of being unable to rise above the life-shattering Carleton U-Nunavut experience (2002-2006). Her final sentence in that paragraph was: “I thought about you because you have also witnessed similar horrors up north and it also changed you as a person. ” Similar horrors up north in Canada in the 20th century . . . This is what makes it so hard to deal with . . .

There is also a paragraph at the end of Dr. Orbinski’s introduction that Adrienne found helpful,

“Today I am forty-seven, a husband, a father of two young boys, a doctor, a citizen, a sometimes humanitarina, and always, at the end of the day, a man. Over the last twenty years, I have struggled to understand how to respond to the suffering of others. I have come to know perhaps too well that only humans can be rationally cruel. Only humans can choose to sacrifice life in the name of some political end, and only humans can call such sacrifices into question. As a physician I am given virtually unhindered access to some of the most intimate experiences in people’s lives, usually through suffering, but not always. I can see a person, a family or a community grow into health. I have witnessed the good of which we as human beings are capable: the good that calls a mother to feed her child, regardless of how unbearable her own suffering may be; the good of a mother and a grandmother who carry their sick boy to a clinic in South Africa. The good of those who refuse to remain silent as another is violated, and who act to right a wrong. It is the good we can be if we so choose.”

Mothers and grandmothers . . . they’re often the ones left holding the child. And the children and grandchildren in their own way give the mothers and grandmothers strength.

And the strong ones like Adrienne Carter and Dr. James Orbinski are with them witnessing, sharing, walking with them and listening, really listening in concentric circles of caring . . .


For late 20th century profound insights into genocide see Zygmut Bauman.

See also Hannah Arendt (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

“It was as though in those last minutes he [Eichmann] was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

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