Margaret Atwood: Compassion under contemporary conditions

Sunday, May 29, 2016


Caleb Snider, Congress 2016 student blogger

How can you describe a talk by Canadian literary icon and living legend Margaret Atwood? To do it true justice would take the literary chops of Ms. Atwood herself, something I will never claim to have. What I can say is that she is an intellectual iron gauntlet under a velvet glove of quiet dignity and razor-sharp wit.

As part of her keynote address today for the University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing’s Compassion Under Contemporary Conditions Interdisciplinary Symposium, Atwood dared to ask the question, “compassion: how much is too much?” Those of us who see compassion as a universal good might bridle at this inquiry; but in laying out a popular history of the nurse in Western culture (wives and mothers kept locked out of public life because of their “natural compassion,” near-angelic Florence Nightingale carbon copies, passive and sexually available objects) and reflecting on the dark underside of compassion and its exploitation (according to Atwood, as a Scorpio and a writer she is doubly prone to always think the worst), she justified the concept that we must take a critical look at how we act and respond to one another as compassionate beings.

Whether discussing the “false nurse” who exploited her daughter’s burgeoning childhood compassion in order to sell her a Cabbage Patch Doll or the amateur bird watchers whose misplaced compassion for osprey chicks led to the shutting off of a nest cam at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Atwood demonstrated with humour and reason that our compassion can be hijacked by our own darker natures.

Perhaps the most difficult situations in which we have to reflect on our own compassion are those that Atwood described as no-win situations where we are forced to determine which is the lesser of two evils—she cited the abortion debate that has continued for more than 50 years, and perhaps the most poignant and thorny point of contention in Canadian politics right now: the criteria for legal doctor-assisted suicide currently being debated in our Parliament and in our popular media.

Atwood asked the tough questions: is pain the inevitable price we pay for being human, and if it is, how much pain is too much, and who gets to decide? These are questions that I’m certain will be resonating throughout the rest of this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. 


Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences