Pin it Stumble google-plus

Buttons and Bows and Bracelets


Published: 07/23/2012

by Jim Campbell

 At a conference a while ago, everyone seemed to be wearing buttons with messages supporting all kinds of worthy projects and causes. Some of the delegates were festooned with so many buttons it was obvious they left no good cause unturned. I was prepared. I made myself a big button. It was blank, no printing, no message or graphics!

To the inevitable question, I replied, "I want to be involved but I can't make up my mind." To that there were a variety of responses and comments. A few people laughed, many wondered at my weird sense of humour and a few seemed genuinely concerned about the level of my compassion.

To my surprise one of the conference leaders insisted I give him the button. To this day I wonder how he incorporated it into his presentations. Did he use it for a bit of comic relief or as a serious illustration of how some people opt out of being involved in helping to solve society's problems? Probably it was the latter; he was an uptight kind of guy.

I don't get to go to many conferences these days but I imagine delegates still wear buttons to show their concerns, compassion and support. But, maybe not! It may be that buttons at conferences have been replaced by ribbons; ribbons looped like little bows and pinned to coats, jackets, blouses and sweaters.

Ribbons of all colours, red, green yellow, white, blue...for every cause, illness and charity. Wearing one of the ribbons is a public statement about one's commitments and passions. The same goes for those Lance Armstrong type bracelets. Distinctive at first, it now seems there's one for almost every cause.

There has been another change. While the buttons handed out at conferences were mostly worn while the meetings and conferences were in session, ribbons and bracelets have become part of many people's daily attire; some wear them all the time, even onto the podium at the Academy Awards.

They are used to bear steadfast witness to people's empathy for the suffering of others. With so many ribbons and bracelets, and so many causes and concerns, its difficult to remember what the colours represent. Is red about drunk driving, green for the environment, white about being against violence against women? I'm sure I don't have the causes and the colours right -- it is hard to know, there are so many.

The ribbons and bracelets are a sign our inventive society is in the process of creating new ways of expressing empathy and compassion, showing new styles for collective responses to social problems, grief and loss. It is now common, since the death of Princess Diana, to see instant memorials of cards, stuffed animals and bouquets of flowers at the scene of a tragedy or to mark the passing of a celebrity.

Bruce West, a researcher for the British think-tank, Civitas, studying our society's customs and the direction our society seems to be moving in, calls these new ways "Conspicuous Compassion."

The popularity of wearing ribbons and the creation of the instant memorials seem to be clear evidence that we are caring people. However, West's analysis of the data indicates that the public displays of empathy for the poor and the homeless, the disposed and the bereaved have not engendered very much compassionate action.

He must have something there. In our communities, all kinds of volunteer organizations, service clubs, churches, charities and social agencies suffer from declining pools of volunteers.

Sure, there may be all sorts of reasons for this decline. People are working longer hours, husbands and wives are both working, the pressures of the 21st century business world are mounting. It's sad to need excuses while blood banks plead for donors, transplant lists grow ever longer, teams need coaches, kids need Big Brothers and Big Sisters and hospitals and major charities turn to lotteries to raise money. (By the way, lotteries don't have much to do with compassion or empathy. The major concerns of the ticket buyers are the odds of winning and the prizes offered, and not about heart and stroke victims, cancer research or the funding problems of the hospitals.)

Compassion, like all the important virtues - love, faithfulness, patience, honour, truth, justice - only exists within actions. Compassion is not about signs and symbols but about the nature of our deeds. Without action, deeds and generosity, compassion has no substance, no existence.

I guess all we need is a reality check. Great things can happen if we all make sure we stand behind our words and live up to the buttons and bows and bracelets.

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based writer. Send your comments by e-mail to

Browse by Category