Neiman-Marcus Compassion

[Beliefnet, May 30, 2000]

If you’re in the market for a great big Bucket o’ Compassion, the best place to look would be the May 2000 Neiman-Marcus catalogue. It sports a sincere moss-green cover embossed with a cream-colored card, which proclaims “Compassion: A Tribute to Loving Hearts and Minds.” The font is so noble you want to cry.

Inside there’s a message in purple on cream, with intermittent capitalizing and oversized words that convey the kind of urgency associated with teenage girls:

“COMPASSION can be defined as our capacity to care for other living beings. Yet it goes a little deeper than that. Compassion REQUIRES ACTION  — giving of our time, money, or experience wherever there’s a need. Since it’s available in SUCH ABUNDANCE, we sometimes take this feeling for granted. But, oh, its power! Compassion is the ultimate salve we can place upon the UNIVERSAL FEELINGS of despair, pain, or regret. Which means that even sometimes the simplest act of KINDNESS CAN define a moment. Or CHANGE A LIFE.”

What kind of a Scrooge could object to a message like that? The kind who notices that the first thing offered in the catalogue is a pair of $1400 earrings. A few more pages and you’re up to the $12,000 watch and the $36,000 necklace. Apart from a growing feeling that it would be darned compassionate of someone to give these things to me, I’m not sure how the sentiments on the cover relate to the interior.

On page 40 the mystery is made clear: each year the NM Foundation selects a few charities to receive “a portion of the proceeds” from the sale of a NM-exclusive item. This year the offering is a “Compassion Bracelet” that “explores color therapy by mixing crystals, seed beads, and semiprecious stones,” a bargain at $55. This year’s recipient(s) will be disclosed later in the spring; previous years’ included organizations that provide meals to kids, shelter to homeless women, and guide dogs to the blind. Here’s a puzzler: “religious organizations” are never considered, “to avoid conflicts of interest.”

In a note opposite the title page we get another opportunity to admire the wonder that is Neiman-Marcus. A group of company associates volunteers each summer at a camp for children with cancer, while others serve different causes as donors or committee members. The chairman and CEO of the company are shown in an adjoining photo, looking valiant even though they’re probably not volunteering at a summer camp at the moment, judging from their attire. Unless it’s Camp Junior Tycoon.

This kind of thing is easy to make fun of (try and stop me!) but the problem is not that Neiman-Marcus has embraced the concept of compassion. A catalogue titled “Compassion” is better than one titled “Avarice” or “Loot.” The juxtaposition of noble sentiments and $36,000 jewelry seems initially jarring, but the problem is only one of perception. We aren’t yet used to combining business and spirituality. We still compartmentalize; we still presume that spiritual things are for once-a-week piety, and the rest of the week is every-man-for-himself. It’s the separation of Faith and Life.

This kind of separation is a bad thing for both. Faith gets attenuated and vague, Life gets grimy and bent around the edges. In recent years spiritual and temporal things have been mingling in a healthier balance, and the “Naked Public Square” has at least got its shoes on.

In his new book, “Bobos in Paradise,” David Brooks offers a new view of the culture wars. The bourgeoisie, he says, won. Sure, at first glance it looks like the stuffy old Establishment is dead, and flower-child philosophy is sprinkled victoriously over all like beads from a “color therapy” bracelet. Yet, Brooks says, that wasn’t really what the “war” was about. Since early 19th century France, the conflict has been between stylish bohemians and stolid bourgeoisie—a philosophical war between art and business.

The conflict was a long one. In the sixties, hippies railed against soulless consumerism; in the eighties, “greedy”corporations were objects of loathing. But business offers opportunity and security that can’t be matched elsewhere, and gradually won the field. Now we’re both bourgeois and bohemian—Bobos. Now it’s OK to be smart in business, even OK to be rich; now dot com billionaires are folk heroes. If in the struggle some spiritual awareness rubbed off, if business is getting religion, that’s not a bad thing.

The problem is not that Neiman-Marcus has embraced compassion; the problem is that they won’t shut up about it. The whole project has the odor of spray-on virtue, a scent becoming increasingly familiar. The Neiman-Marcus catalogue exemplifies a general trend toward business expressions of public moralizing. Certainly this is not a bad thing; it’s better than public demoralizing. But it includes a creepy air of smugness and self-satisfaction. Neiman-Marcus says compassion gets taken for granted because “it’s available in SUCH ABUNDANCE” — why, around the office, we just overflow with it like Lady Bountiful. Yet if the Latin meaning of the word is “to suffer with,” real compassion is a great deal more costly and wrenching than that.
True compassion is not so self-congratulatory; true compassion “vaunteth not itself.” As Jesus warned, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them. …When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do; truly, they have received their reward. … But do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” That hand, right there. The one with the $12,000 watch.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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