Help Me Help You: University of Arizona hosting series on compassion at Fox Theatre


We’ve all experienced more than our recommended dose of dread over the past year. Rather than lean into the strife, the University of Arizona’s College of Social & Behavioral Sciences is going in the opposite direction for their annual lecture series. The College’s signature event at downtown’s Fox Theatre will examine various definitions of compassion, from how we define it through religion to how it impacts the structure of society.

Running every Wednesday through October, SBS’s free lecture series includes four guest speakers each presenting a different side of compassion. Previous lecture topics include music, women’s power and animals. Every year, SBS dean John Paul Jones III and SBS associate dean of community engagement Maribel Alvarez select a topic that is both familiar, yet open to interpretation.

“For this year, we knew there was a sense of exhaustion that everyone was feeling, and social unrest,” Alvarez said. “So we could have easily done it on a more incendiary topic, like crises or the pandemic. But a lot of people don’t want to hear about that. We know what the problems are, so let’s focus on solutions. What do we need for our political, social and health divides?”

The community lecture series opens on Wednesday, Oct. 6, with a talk from UA instructor Leslie Langbert, who also serves as executive director of the Center for Compassion Studies. Langbert will explore the power of compassion on communities, and how it is essential for our survival. Langbert’s Center for Compassion Studies investigates the impact of “compassion and contemplative practices on individual, group and environmental well-being.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, Joseph Lacoste Sanguinetti, a postdoctoral fellow in UA’s Department of Psychology, will explore the science behind caring for others. Sanguinetti will examine new neuroscience detailing how our brains are wired for compassion, and how “training practices like meditation activates brain circuits related to positive emotion, reduces stress, and leads to overall well-being.”

“They’re all different definitions of the same topic. An interesting thing about compassion is that it’s not just a feeling. It’s wired into our need for cooperation,” Alvarez said. “But it’s also a kind of enigma, in that we don’t exhibit care for all others equally. What is the science between feeling compassion for some but not others? In that sense, we realize it’s a scientific and social conundrum worth exploring.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Maha Nassar, associate professor in the UA’s School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, will look at compassion on the scale of international diplomacy. In particular, she will examine the shifting conversation around Palestine and Israel. Nassar specializes in Middle Eastern cultures, having published the book “Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World.”

The final installation is on Wednesday, Oct. 27, featuring Buddhist minister and author Lama Rod Owens discussing compassion as a tool of liberation and justice. Owens reaches into his knowledge of Buddhist teachings and social justice movements to help listeners “think about compassion as a practice more intentional than simple gestures of benevolence or charity.” Owens earned his Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School, and blends his formal Buddhist training with experiences growing up in the South.

“Lama Rod Owens is an amazing speaker who met a very important criteria for us: He works in the arena of healing and the Buddhist tradition of compassion, but he also looks at how we use our senses of rage,” Alvarez said. “In that tradition, there might be a lot of spiritual masters or gurus, and also speakers focused on social injustice, but I think there are very few people who combine the topics. He isn’t soft about the questions of justice and liberation, nor does he let himself be consumed by the negative. He has that equilibrium.”

Attendees can register online for free tickets for the Downtown Lecture Series “Compassion: A Tool for Liberation and Understanding.” The Fox Theatre requires all attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours prior to attendance.

“Often we see the public come to hear about something that is interesting and familiar, but they leave scratching their heads because their ideas on the subject change. That has happened with music, animals and privacy. And we hope it happens again here,” Alvarez said.

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