Restoring Compassion through Restorative Practices

By Haley Farrar
Victoria University of Wellington &

“Compassion” isn’t a word I’ve heard thrown around a lot lately. Except, perhaps, when combined with the word “fatigue.” Our current political and cultural climate is rife with fear and anger, and our reptilian brains cut straight to kneejerk flight or fight retributive responses when we’re in such a state.

How do we sustain our relationships to endure the strain that occurs? How do we strengthen our community to support the compassion that will get us through these dark times?

Simply encouraging each other to prioritize love and compassion isn’t going to cut it with today’s stresses. Entire communities are hurting, the weight of centuries of oppression taking tolls I can’t completely comprehend. Imploring harmed individuals to be compassionate at times seems unrealistic, or even wildly offensive in the denial of the experience of pain they’re enduring.

But of course, responding to harm with more harm does nothing to stop the cycles of violence and oppression that got us here.
I believe restorative justice can save us from ourselves.
Restorative justice – the process of bringing impacted individuals together in the wake of crime or conflict to seek to repair harm – is so much more than a meeting. Restorative approaches can be applied in spaces of conflict large and small, between and amongst individuals, communities, and entire nations.

Restorative approaches bring compassion, humanity, and community into spaces which have historically lacked both – courts and disciplinary processes – but also lend us tools to face the daily social destruction around us.

Restorative approaches teach us to repair harm first. They don’t instruct us to love blindly or to simply forgive. They ask the individual or institution that has caused the harm to take responsibility for repairing it. And the process to do so first starts with listening and sharing. It demands vulnerability of us to ask ourselves what led us to hurt others, what mistakes we’ve made, and what changes need to be made. Restorative approaches also honour the taking of responsibility. Ultimately, they seek to avoid stigmatization typically associated with offending behaviour and allow us all to grow and change.

So first, we must listen. Not rescue. Not fight. Listen.

We must create spaces to ask of our neighbours, “How have you been affected by the harm done? How have you seen others affected?”
We must sit with the discomfort, the expression of anger and pain, and allow it to occur safely and without censorship. And then we must find a way to move past it by asking, “What needs to happen to repair these harms and prevent it from happening again?”
In these dialogues, we can connect authentically and repair our fraying communities.

I, like many before me and many since, turned to law to enlist in the fight for social justice. I wanted to “speak for those whose voice is silent” (Proverbs 31:8). But my work in restorative justice has flipped my understanding of justice on its head. I was arrogant to assume I should be the one to speak for silenced individuals.

A restorative approach asks me to hand over the microphone, ask curious questions of the silenced, and listen closely to what they say. Listening through restorative approaches has shaped my life to look first at the harm experienced, not simply for the proof of the “Truth” or the persuasiveness of the argument. In a restorative approach, the goal is not to win. It’s to repair and restore relationships to rightness.

In restorative practices, we focus not only on the repair of harm, but on the building and maintenance of relationships. They call for respectful circle-based conversation to encourage equal voice and to break down power structures that so easily lead us astray. When we apply restorative approaches, our community strengthens by the day, enriched by the magnification of voices speaking on their own behalf. In each of these processes, we connect with our own humanity and create a space to see others’ authentic selves.