Mar 282016

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Yale alumi donated free books to every student at an elementary school on Monday.

Novelist Elizabeth Kostava helped students at Hall Fletcher Elementary School pick out three books they could keep.

She and novelist David Madden are two writers who wanted to help students develop a love for reading.

The Yale alums visited library book sales throughout the region and bought books to give to the students at Hall Fletcher… Read more and watch the related video.

 Posted by at 1:17 pm
Dec 092012

London Bridge in Plague and Fire at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.

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 Posted by at 5:27 pm
Apr 232012


by David Madden

A year or so ago in Baton Rouge, having left my Methodist church early to visit my wife’s Unitarian Church, I had an epiphany.

Looking around at the Unitarians, most of whom I had known for years through Robbie, I thought:

“I feel certain that every person in this place is a good person. Looking around at my fellow Christians, I never have that feeling in any church.”

So this morning, I feel I am the right person, in the right place, at the right time–to share with you my ongoing meditations on the effect of the power of imagination upon the power of compassion.

Among Christians, I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Among Unitarians, I feel the spirit of humanity. Many Christians do good works out of a general doctrine of compassion, prompted by Jesus who promises the reward of eternal life in heaven.

Generally, Unitarians think and act out of compassion for individuals and groups within the context of the fellowship of mankind, with no prospect or desire for reward.


The many programmatic givens of the Christian context for compassion tend to inhibit one’s imagination and thus the power of compassion. The simpler Unitarian context for compassion stimulates one’s imagination and makes possible a stronger act of compassion.

As I review the seven principles that Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote and the many sources from which you draw wisdom and guidance, I see clearly that it is compassion that makes each principal and each source possible. The very word “Compassion” is mentioned three times. I hesitate to call it a trinity.


The word “imagination” is not mentioned, but it is implicit in each tenet, so that imagination and compassion are the motive force behind those principles and sources of faith that are the beating heart of the Unitarian Universalist community.


I speak this morning from the perspective of a novelist who knows from 50 years experience that employing the imagination in the creation of a novel is in itself an act of compassion that elicits compassion from the reader.


What is compassion? “Com” means “together” or “with.” In this word, “passion” means “suffering.” One of the many definitions that the world may find on the worldwide web is that compassion is “an emotion prompted by a consciousness of the pain of others.” More vigorous than mere sympathy or pity or even empathy, compassion “commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate” suffering.

Abraham Herschel wrote that

“A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”


If one turns to a Bible concordance, one finds only 18 citations to “compassion.” In the New Testament, for instance, Peter says, “Be ye all of one mind, having compassion for one another.”

One finds only 17 citations to “imagination,” mostly negative, as in “cast down imaginations,” possibly because the mammoth Old Testament seems to cherish the negative.

No wonder many Christians have put a strangle hold on the concept of compassion.

But human thought generally has not delved deeply into the idea of compassion and imagination. In five books of quotations, I found an average of only five citations to famous quotes about imagination and compassion.

Compassion as most people know and practice it falls far below the level I envision and propose that we know, practice, and experience it. The missing motive force is greater imagination. ‘The unimagined life is not worth living.”

What is imagination? Merriam-Webster defines imagination as “The formation of a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses.” It is an image-making faculty.

Another source places imagination in context:

“Every human has four endowments: Self-awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom.”

            Coleridge, author of “The Ancient Mariner,” wrote: “Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”


When compared with compassion, Coleridge’s description of imagination calls attention to the fact that imagination is a much more comprehensive faculty, which may ignite both good and bad feelings, thoughts, and actions, but when keenly focused, as upon compassion, it can have the power of a laser.

My student of 40 years ago, Dara Wier, now a famous poet, impulsively emailed me recently. “Right now, I’m reading for the first time, MIDDLEMARCH. So just now I came upon this: ‘She has a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.’

Dara said, “I was instantly very excited as I recalled those words coming to me first of all from you in the course of our first poetry writing workshop. It was thrilling to see them again, in that context.”

She thanked me for that instance of how, in the world’s one breathing, a single thought acts in multiple ways across the years.”

As with a poem, a play, a movie, or a novel, compassion is a product of the imagination. Compassion and imagination are inseparable.


The creative writer, especially the novelist, is an example of the power of the imagination in the creation of compassion. Not even the most cynical writer can imagine characters without feeling compassion for them.

Writers con readers to stimulate compassion for imaginary people; that process prepares readers for autonomous compassion for real people.

Compassion is a brightly burning star in the literary firmament, brought to you by AMAZON, where you will find the word “compassion” in numerous nonfiction titles.

Without Amazon’s help, the titles of many novels in which the protagonist imagines and feels the passion, the suffering of others come readily to mind: THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV, ANNA KARENINA, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, INVISIBLE MAN, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, THE GREAT GATSBY, THE SCARLET LETTER, BLEAK HOUSE, MADAME BOVARY, HEART OF DARKNESS, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and PRECIOUS. One of the few novels with the word “compassion” in the title is Benito Galdos’s COMPASSION.


Leonard Michael’s title sums up: I WOULD HAVE SAVED THEM IF I COULD.

In graduate school, I felt such compassion for Wright Morris because his fine novels had been neglected, that I wrote my first book of literary criticism about him. His novels explore many types of compassion. In MAN AND BOY, he imagines a father and son taking refuge from a cold, perfectionist wife and mother in a basement toilet without either knowing it until both happen to stumble opon each other there in total darkness.

The boy imagines that his mother might feel hurt if she knew that he and his father were down there together, perhaps conspiring somehow against her, in that secret refuge. So, out of compassion, he asks, “Shall we make one flush do, Pop?”

A comic but very moving instance of compassion imagined.

Meditating upon the nature and workings of imagination and compassion, I discovered that in the creation of my own novels, I have not only employed my imagination compassionately, I have created protagonists who are themselves engaged in the many types of compassion.



In my first novel, THE BEAUTIFUL GREED, based on my teenage experiences as a merchant seaman, the protagonist takes risks in acts of compassion for the ship’s scapegoat, even though he doesn’t even like him.

In my second novel, CASSANDRA SINGING, a young bedridden sister who lives a life of the imagination feels compassion for her older brother whose life of action is destroying him.

In my third novel, BIJOU, the autobiographical protagonist, an adolescent writer, feels and acts out of compassion for the members of his dysfunctional family, for his teacher, for a promiscuous classmate, among many other people, while he is writing stories out of his compassionate imagination.

In my forthcoming novel, LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE, writing out of compassion for the fact that the 12th Century engineer of one of the most famous bridges in world history is almost totally forgotten, I imagined a 16th century poet’s imagined biography of that masterbuilder, Father Peter de Colechurch.


In THE SUICIDE’S WIFE, out of greater compassion than I have felt for any of my other characters, I rendered the barren subjective life of a woman who has very little imagination and thus has very little capacity for compassion.

In my most recent novel, ABDUCTED BY CIRCUMSTANCE, I render the opposite: the rich and complex inner life of a woman who imagines the trauma of an abducted older woman.

The charged image of that novel is of Carol standing by a lighthouse with her six year old daughter in the snow in sub-zero weather at the end of Lake Ontario, where the ice is breaking up with a sound like a woman crying, when an elegantly dressed older woman suddenly appears nearby, while a man in a snow-mask stands on the porch of a deserted fog-horn building. Suddenly, the woman is not there, and the man’s pick up truck is roaring away.

Before or at the inception of the feeling of compassion, intuition is vital, as when Carol has an intuition that the older woman is very confident, successful, and self-possessed. Carol’s act of imagination is spontaneous at first, but it becomes a willed act that engenders, intensifies, and prolongs her act of compassion.


Compassion is in itself an action, but Carol is unique in fiction because, through her imagination, she sustains compassion intensely, relentlessly for 8 days and nights.


She set off in pursuit of the snow-masked man’s black pickup truck, now white with snow. In an intuitive rush, Carol felt, in her very bones, her very spirit, that if she imagines what is happening to the lady, imagines how she is reacting, and if she keeps on talking to her, she will somehow be helping her feel, do, and say what will help her gain time, escape, survive.

Sometimes our act of compassion for one person is at the expense of another, as when Carol realizes that the effect of the compulsiveness of her compassion for the abducted woman is that she has, in some sense, abducted her own child.

Sometimes we act upon compassion for selfish reasons of which we are not at first aware. Carol finally realizes that she has been abducted by the circumstances of her own life, and that she is her own abductor, so that what she now feels is self-compassion.


Compassion for others is not a teaching of all religions, but self-compassion is the motive power of most religions, especially of religions founded on fear of the gods.

People do not imagine the suffering of others as profoundly as they may feel inclined, because they sense perhaps a kind of terror if they did. When, as a kid, I saw or even heard or read about the suffering of people—from members of my family and others that I knew personally, to the Jews in concentration camps and the victims of Hiroshima, I felt not only compassion but guilt, because as a fervent Christian I was failing to do something to end their suffering. But guilt is self-centered and thus impedes compassion.

Even so, later on, for fifty years as an agnostic, I still felt that guilt, but I was also was afraid that if I imagined much more deeply and profoundly the lives of all suffering people, I would go insane, that my brains and guts would explode, disintegrate.

One cannot forgive without first feeling compassion. Jesus commanded that his followers forgive their enemies, as he forgave his executioners from the cross, but forgiveness, too, makes demands upon imagination and compassion, and, although Christians say they forgive their enemies, say they hate the sin, not the sinners, pure reason suggests that such feelings of compassion lack the sustained power that I am advocating here.

But I think that the Amish felt profound compassion for the man who slaughtered 5 of their little girls in their one room schoolhouse and forgave him, because they were, I imagine, moved by an intuitive sense of what a horrible life such a man must have suffered through, devoid of a sense of compassion.

It is lack of imagination and thus of compassion that enables people—many of whom are what I call Old Testament Christians—to advocate the death penalty and to oppose abortions for the victims of incest. Ugly images are given to supporters, a superficial basis for their convictions, speech, and actions.

But if one imagines the quality of life of death penalty and anti-abortion advocates, one may also feel compassion for them.

A burst of compassion, quickly diminished, often serves as a substitute or inhibitor of profound compassion and acts. If faith without works is dead, compassion without works is self-indulgence, but it can also be preparation for other instances of compassion as acts.

As an agnostic for 50 years, I often felt such compassion for Christians whose Christianity struck me as superficial that I became what I called an agnostic priest, ministering to “ye of little faith,” as I condescendingly called them.

I have sometimes felt that my fellow liberals’ attacks on superficial Christians were in themselves superficial.

I will never forget the hip liberal Reverend Malcolm Boyd’s visit to Kenyon College, where he mean spiritedly satirized the kind of lady who regularly bakes the cookies for church socials as an example of a superficial Christian. As I listened, sitting among my fellow liberals, I imagined the cookie lady so clearly that I felt such intense compassion for her that I was almost in tears when I finally reached Boyd through his adoring fans, and said:

“Reverend Boyd, you will be a great preacher when you can feel and then evoke compassion for the cookie lady in front of a room full of people predisposed to jeer at her.”

He said, “I’ve always feared someone like you would say that to me.”

On a much more serious level, one’s inability to feel more than bursts of compassion for victims of rape, murder, sexual abuse, or racism is caused by a failure of imagination.

We fail an even more severe test of imagination and compassion when we are unable to feel compassion for the rapist, the murderer, the sexual abuser, and the racist. Many writers fail that test.

But the black writer James Baldwin, in his short story “Going to Meet the Man,” sets an example for all of us when he expresses compassion for a cruel Klansman who was raised from childhood to commit acts of racism.

Compassion for one person differs from compassion for a group. Sometimes we may feel more compassion for a stranger than for a family member, because so much about a family member is given, known, while we must imagine the life of a stranger, and as we imagine, we feel more deeply. Compassion for a group or a community, as opposed to compassion for an individual—a family member, a friend, a student–is distinctly difficult.

We feel horror more dramatically than we feel compassion when we learn about events that cause huge, widespread suffering, such as natural disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis—and man-made disasters—the destruction of the twin towers, mass killings, the holocaust, plane crashes. Compassionate people may feel guilty that they cannot feel compassion more profoundly for victims of such catastrophes. I am convinced that the imagination, willfully trained, will help.



Given the emphasis upon suffering, most people regard compassion as solely an emotional experience; many fewer are aware of the role of imagination; for even fewer people, the intellect is employed in the act of compassion. I am convinced that all three come into play, in a sequence and to varying degree, and that most effective is an initial emotional response to suffering which ignites the imagination.

The third in this trinity is the intellect, which is the initial response for a relatively few. Coming as it usually does when compassion becomes less intense, the intellect examines the possibilities for acting upon the feeling of compassion.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of the notorious line “It was a dark and stormy night,” wrote that “A good heart is better than all the heads in the world.” This anti-intellectual misplacement of compassion and other forms of love in the heart distracts humanity from the fact that most emotions are felt in the guts, not the heart, which is really only a muscle that sometimes gets agitated. “Guts” and “bowels” are synonymous, which in the archaic meaning is “the seat of pity, tenderness, or courage.” The Apostle John wrote, “Do not shut up your bowels of compassion for your brother.”


I aspire to become myriad minded. The myriad minded person willfully develops and employs all three—emotion, imagination, and intellect. However, the more myriad minded we become, the more difficult it is to focus upon the individual instance of suffering; but it is worth the risk.

F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think by the word “intelligence” he meant the dynamic interaction of emotion, imagination, and intellect. My meditations lead me to say that such myriad minded people as those who pass that test are much more likely to develop a first rate capacity for compassion that prompts action.

In our lives, failure to imagine causes failure to feel compassion and to act. One cannot learn to be compassionate, but one can learn to increase the power of one’s imagination and consciously, deliberately, willfully employ imagination in the act of compassion.                        So I have taken up the task of learning the ways that the power of imagination, actively engaged in the process of compassion, may enhance the power and the duration of the feeling of compassion, and guide a person in compassionate action. Please join me in that humanitarian task.

Let Carole in my novel ABDUCTED BY CIRCUMSTANCE have the last word, as a person the active power of whose imagination empowers her sustained act of compassion:

She set off in pursuit of the snow-masked man’s black pickup truck, now white with snow. In an intuitive rush, Carol felt, in her very bones, her very spirit, that if she imagines what is happening to the lady, imagines how she is reacting, and if she keeps on talking to her, she will somehow be helping her feel, do, and say what will help her gain time, escape, survive.

 Posted by at 6:54 am