Wikipedia defines Compassion as….“an emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion essentially arises through empathy, and is often characterized through actions, wherein a person acting with compassion will seek to aid those they feel compassionate for. Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion. Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering.”
Compassion can get us into trouble. All of us have tried to help someone in our journeys, and have been terribly let down. Many have found the price of trying to be kind to someone in trouble, is the anger of someone else passing false and untrue judgements on another, or have injected into a situation a reality driven by ego. We see it in terms of policy, defined by phrases like “compassion fatigue” , and in the snarky comments made when you give a panhandler a dollar. It can get someone punched in the face, or judged unfairly by those they love, and occasionally assassinated by bullets and words.
Compassion has gotten me in trouble more than once. For all of us, there are those who simply do not understand why you are trying to help someone they simply do not like, have judged, or are threatened by. They do not understand that compassion has its own rewards, or realize that in the teaching of the great religious traditions, it’s simply an imperative. It certainly was the lynchpin of the Catholic Social Teaching I grew up with. And you see it each day, with Pope Francis.
COMPASSION IS NOT ALWAYS EASY
There are millions of people who can argue, that suffering is deserved, that it’s a form of predestination or the fruits of a troubled life. And even if it’s true that the person in front of you has screwed up their world in a million different ways, or behaves in a way most would defined as dysfunctional, a closer examination would reveal that its roots are found in some great pain.
Most of us would define evil by 9/11. And I cannot claim to have felt anything but relief when the news that Osama bin Laden passed from the scene. Osama bin Laden was finally dead. But as the voices began to chant, “I hope he’s burning in hell,” it was actually counter to what our religious traditions teach us, and against everything that Christianity teaches. What is more difficult to say, is that it is good that Osama bin Laden can do no more harm, and do so with the knowledge that God may very well have mercy and compassion on the soul of a confused individual. Paul says in Romans 9:15-16:
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy.”
Other Scripture passages abound that state that mercy is something that we all may need to save ourselves. We are told to ask God to have compassion on those who are self-destructive, even those who harm others us in their misguided and evil ways. For if you believe that the definitive factor in behavior is environment, it’s because of an environment of ongoing war, that a toxic form of the religious extremism evolved, that evoked a hideously twisted interpretation of God’s Will that misled countless others. For that reason alone, I am grateful that somewhere in the Universe, there is an agency out there that can untangle our shared human messes. In the meantime there is prayer and our own search for compassion. We can search far and wide to find a way to understand why people would convince themselves that God would allow an atrocity. We never will. Chris Hayes in the Nation wrote this….
“We can say that with his death, we return to the world as our adult eyes see it, shot through with suffering and complexity. We can feel compassion for the thousands of innocents who died by bin Laden’s hand as well as our own, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in places like Bagram and Baghdad. We can remember that just because there is evil in the world that we are fighting—and bin Laden was a mass murderer and war criminal—that does not mean we are purely righteous. We can reject relativism and still embrace nuance. We can have the courage to speak and act like adults, to put away childish things, to once and for all banish the bad guys from our nightmares.”
THE PRACTICE OF COMPASSION
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” - THE DALAI LAMA
People have spoken of compassion for time immemorial. But how often is practiced? In an NPR interview I will link, the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, talks of “why religion, which should advocate for compassionate living, is often part of the problem.” In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong writes of ways to add kindness to daily life. One quote really sums up why we need compassion and why we need to alleviate suffering for everyone’s common interest “Despair is a dangerous thing, because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures.”
We grew up with a belief that says, “No good deed goes unpunished. “ Business is replete with cautionary tales, about people who were backstabbed by a person they helped. We all have a horror story where someone has taken horrible advantage of our kindness. Amid a world of danger and uncertainty, it often is all we can handle to get through our own lives, much less deal with the details of too many others. But unchecked despair creates events that haunt our lives. Think of it globally, we see ethnic cleansing, mass murders, and the other disasters of our time. Locally, we see crime and addiction and homelessness. But most importantly of all, more than a few that cross our paths are living lives of quiet desperation. Occasionally even ourselves.
Blogger Leo Babuata has posted on "7 ways to cultivate compassion in our lives. I highly recommend this link.
Babuata’s sixth practice deals with compassion for “Those who mistreat us. “ It’s a nice way to close.
"When we encounter someone who mistreats us, instead of acting in anger, withdraw. Later, when you are calm and more detached, reflect on that person who mistreated you. Try to imagine the background of that person. Try to imagine what that person was taught as a child. Try to imagine the day or week that person was going through, and what kind of bad things had happened to that person. Try to imagine the mood and state of mind that person was in — the suffering that person must have been going through to mistreat you that way. And understand that their action was not about you, but about what they were going through. Now think some more about the suffering of that poor person, and see if you can imagine trying to stop the suffering of that person. And then reflect that if you mistreated someone, and they acted with kindness and compassion toward you, whether that would make you less likely to mistreat that person the next time, and more likely to be kind to that person. Once you have mastered this practice of reflection, try acting with compassion and understanding the next time a person treats you. Do it in little doses, until you are good at it. Practice makes perfect.”
MANY BLESSINGS- NOEL
THE DALAI LAMA ON COMPASSION