By Emerson Malone
What does it mean to connect and empathize with others? Is it still possible to reach out to others without the expectation of reciprocity?
A public lecture on the importance of empathy and altruism was held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 10 in the University of California Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Multicultural Center Theater.
Kathleen Moore, a religious studies professor, called the event “a propitious moment.”
“It’s an occasion when we can begin to talk about how we can bring together the massive efforts of several small nonprofit organizations in Santa Barbara who work for for and on behalf of the less advantaged in the community,” she said to a crowd of about 50.
The lecture, “Selfless Giving: An Interfaith Case for Empathy,” featured talks from Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a nun at Vendanta Society of Sarada Convent, and Craig Rennebohm, a minister who founded the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle, an organization that works with the Seattle’s homeless mentally ill. He is also the author of the 2008 book “Souls in the Hands of a Tender God.”
Vrajaprana was a co-speaker with the Dalai Lama in 2006 at the 14th Interfaith Conference in San Francisco. Her talk was based on the Hindu belief that there is only one divine reality, and that it is necessary to understand this in order to empathize with others.
“[The] infinite divinity masquerades with different names and different forms,” she said. “One form is a Hindu nun. Another form is a professor, a student, a teacher, a CEO [or] a homeless person. It’s that same infinite divinity residing the hearts of all beings. We’re all just wearing these various masks.”
Selfless giving, Vrajaprana said, is to not expect anything in return.
“All other ways of giving are spiritually detrimental,” she said. “Anything that is motivated by selfishness is spiritually bankrupt.”
The expectation of reciprocation is what hinders the nature of generosity. Everyone wants to be appreciated for his or her benevolence.
“We only desire what we think we don’t have,” she said. The truth is: we lack nothing. We stupidly look outside of ourselves for the fulfillment that’s already in our hearts.”
Near the end of her speech, Vrajaprana quoted Swami Vivekananda, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, because your neighbor is yourself.”
Rennebohm started the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle 25 years ago, where be began working as a Lutheran chaplain with the city’s destitute. The basic premise of the chaplaincy, he explained, is to not wait until someone is desperately ill to help them.
“We have to get out and engage people and build relationships,” he said. So “we explore possibilities for housing, [health] care, treatment and work. Let’s be proactive about relating to our neighbors.”
He related a story about a homeless friend he made in Seattle named Jerry. When Jerry learned his father had died and he suddenly realized he had no home.
“My heart froze,” Rennebohm said. “I felt cold. The first feelings of homelessness and abandonment were suddenly gripping him. … I stood in the street almost as paralyzed as Jerry.”
Jerry was banned from most drop-in centers and shelters in Seattle due to his anger. He was allowed at First Avenue Service Center where one staff member consistently gave him a blanket and sandwiches.
“It was a particular staff person who always looked out for Jerry,” Rennebohm recalled.
Soon the staff member died of cancer and Jerry attended the funeral service, where he shared how much the man had touched and helped him.
He sang “Taps,” which ends with the verse, “From the lakes, from the hills, from the skies, all is well, safely rest; God is nigh.”
The University Religious Center Interfaith Fund, The Interfaith Initiative of Santa Barbara County and the UCSB Religious Studies department sponsored the lecture.
Photo: On left: Pravrailka Vrajaprana. On Right: Graig Rennebohm