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To be compassionate means to feel the suffering (the ‘passion’) of another, along with the desire to alleviate it. It involves both feeling and action, with the emphasis on the latter. This practicality is what distinguishes it from related emotions such as sympathy and pity.

The archetypal symbol of compassion is Jesus on the cross, the sacrificial lamb who takes on the suffering of the world in order to redeem it. This image of God as a man dying in agony is quite peculiar when we think about it. Gods are usually represented as all- powerful beings who triumph over their adversaries, which is why we curry their favour. Pagans often found the symbol of the crucifixion repugnant and absurd when missionaries tried to convert them. However it tells us a lot about compassion is it is understood in our culture, and for this we need to go back to the Old Testament.

Traditional Judaism doesn’t believe in life after death. Its spirituality is fully embodied in this life and not in the beyond. As the high priest says in Ecclesiastes: “That which befalls beasts also befalls the sons of men. All are of the dust and return to dust.” This in turn leads to the make-the-best-of it attitude of the old Testament: ‘Whatsoever thy hand find to do, do it with all thy might: for there is no work, no knowledge, no wisdom in the grave whither thou goest.”

As a Jew, Jesus almost certainly believed that his death would be his end. The doctrine of life after death and the immortality of the individual soul took a few more centuries to become established as church dogma. In fact, Christianity has retrospectively attributed those beliefs and their religious consequences to Jesus.

Jesus himself, however, was just a man facing a horrible death. His last words, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” strongly suggest he never expected to finish up nailed to a cross like a common criminal. It is possible that a certain degree of hubris is an occupational hazard of being a messiah. He obviously underestimated the wrath of those he criticised.

However Jesus’ death left us with a marvellous symbol that has percolated through Western society ever since. The cross represents the human body, and like him, we are all nailed to our bodies. This exposes every one of us to suffering, loss, failure, injustice, old age and death. We may escape the worst of it. We may triumph above it, anaesthetise ourselves against it or make peace with our lot, but this is the world we all inhabit. In particular, this is the territory of spirituality and compassion.

Christianity and the crucifix remind us that we all suffer, rich and poor, and asks ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Sympathy and pity can go so far, but compassion always implies action. To be a good Christian, or a good Jew or Muslim, you have to put your money where your mouth is.

‘By their fruits shall ye know them’, said the Bible. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been feeding the hungry, helping the orphans and widows and caring for the sick and dying, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. They have also cajoled and persuaded the rich and powerful to do the same, in order to be seen as good citizens. Hence the monumental scale of charity, philanthropy and welfare in the West.

This religious ideal of universal compassion has survived the decline in church authority, and is now firmly embedded in our secular institutions, particularly through taxation. I am quite happy to give a fraction of my income to the government so it can help the needy. The idea of letting the poor and the sick die on the streets is anathema to us. All Western governments are committed to social welfare, despite the massive cost. Even the ethos of godless communism is Christian at heart.

Although the word ‘compassion’ suggests a depth of feeling for one’s fellow man, what really counts is the practical help. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, has now devoted virtually all his wealth to charity. He doesn’t seem to be a particularly warm or sympathetic individual. He knows the poor in Africa are suffering, but does he actually feel their suffering the way they do? We see him as compassionate because of his actions, not because of his depth of feeling.

Although compassion is supposed to be good for both giver and recipient, we also know that it often goes wrong. ‘Compassion’ is often a cover for manipulation and power. Foreign aid commonly forces poor nations to become vassals of the donor country. Millions of corrupt aid workers and bureaucrats live parasitically on the flow of money and goods. Amongst the recipients, it can foster resentment, dependency, victim ideologies and assumptions of entitlement.

To augment their power, religious leaders love to make us feel guilty and selfish around issues of money. Evangelical churches typically praise generosity, and then tithe their followers 10%. Jesus, provocative as usual, said to the rich man ‘Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, if you want to enter the kingdom of God.’ Against that kind of standard we all fall short.

We’re know we’re much more calculating in our generosity. If you gave to any recent disaster fund, you probably thought something like ‘Will $50 or $100 or $200 be enough?’ Enough for what? Enough to make you feel good or to assuage your guilt? We know we place self-interest way ahead of compassion. If we gave to charity last year it was probably something like ‘99% for me, 1% for them’. Furthermore, we know that self-interest works. This is how the world ticks over. We can’t say the same for compassion.

Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene even argued that compassion is a myth. He said that all apparently altruistic behaviour is selfish at heart. As social animals who can’t survive alone, we indirectly benefit when we help others in our community.

Many people do genuinely sacrifice themselves for no apparent benefit, but Dawkins had an answer for that. He said that our primary instinct is not to stay alive, but to get our genes into the next generation. If we can’t have offspring ourselves, the next best thing is to ensure that the progeny of our closest kin survive. A wolf who surrenders his sexual opportunities to the dominant breeding pair and helps care for their pups, is not being altruistic. He is just helping his genes into the future. However, I don’t see how this applies to paying taxes.

The idea that compassion is unnatural received a huge boost with the theory of evolution. This seemed to prove that Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is a ruthless battleground for the survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism then argued that these forces should be allowed to play out in the political arena. The poor, the sick and the weak should not be cared for but allowed to die. It argued that compassion, charity and welfare were unnatural Christian imposts on the vigour of a strong society. Because this idea led directly to the Nazi practice of murdering social undesirables, it has fallen out of favour nowadays.

Yet the question still remains. ‘What’s in it for you?’ Why do we help and care for others? Why do we raise children, for example? Parents probably surrender more of their time, money, health and personal prospects for their children than anyone else. Their generosity is colossal if rarely appreciated. Yet because parents get satisfaction from what they do, we can’t say their actions are perfectly selfless.

Another argument against compassion is that if it was natural, we should find it fairly equally in all societies. In fact, compassion in the form of charity and welfare is almost entirely a Western phenomenon. In the East, goodwill and non-violence are idealised, but compassion in the sense of disinterested, benevolent action is almost completely absent. Buddhist compassion is well-wishing not well-doing.

Once again, we can attribute this to Jesus. Most cultures promote consideration for others to form cohesive communities, but it is easy to see this as merely enlightened self-interest. The Jewish prophets before Jesus spoke only to Jews, and honored Judaic law. Jesus was unique in that he addressed those on the margins. He consorted with publicans, prostitutes, Romans and sinners. His message was that you should love and care for anyone, just as they are, without expecting them to be like you.

This radical perspective cut compassion loose from its familial, tribal base and universalised it. It also explains why Christian organisations so commonly help people regardless of race or religion, whereas Buddhist or Hindu cross-cultural aid, so far as I can tell, is virtually non-existent.

We are commonly exhorted to be more compassionate, but I suspect we are each born with a greater or lesser capacity for empathy that we can’t do much about. At one extreme we see the little kids who are distressed by a dying bug. At the other extreme we have the ‘greed is good, me first’ mob. Trying to be more compassionate that you are may be rather like trying to love your mother and father because you are supposed to.

Compassion, nonetheless, is a learnt skill. Our understanding of another’s pain is based on what we’ve experienced ourselves, and it starts very young. A two-year-old will recognise that another child is upset and take remedial action to alleviate that pain based on what works for him. A child has limits, however. He will recognise when his mother is upset but won’t understand the far more complex reasons why. He will see the pain but not feel it.

A mother however can more easily understand her child. She was once a child herself and remembers what it was like. As we get older, our capacity for empathy also grows, but it is never perfect. A young adult, even one who knows everything, is still unlikely to grasp the subtle disabilities of ageing.

Young doctors can skillfully alleviate the symptoms of older patients, which is all we ask of them, without understanding the complexity of feeling involved. In matters of feeling however, a psychologist or counsellor who has personally plumbed the depths will be better than some bright young thing straight out of university.

The fastest way to develop empathy for others is through one’s own suffering. As we get older, we understand so much more of the loss, sickness, failure and depression that are so commonly part of an ordinary life. Older people, having suffered the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are potentially in the best position to understand the pain of others, and respond appropriately.

Increasing wisdom can also cool off our capacity for empathy. According to the research, we typically become calmer, more philosophic and happier as we get older, which can make it harder to sympathise with the dramas of youth. I find it now takes a certain effort to imagine the intoxications of romantic love, for example.

Anyone who suffers, or remembers what it is like, knows the inescapable nail-through- the-flesh quality of it. Pain traps us in an eternal, existential present and turns both the past and future into ghosts. Once we were happy or at least free of pain, but we know those days of innocence will never return. Nor is it possible to imagine ever being free of pain in the future. That’s the nature of pain.

The consoling words of others who tell you “It will pass’ seem fatuous and insulting, even if well meant. When we’re in pain, it feels like forever. Even pains that do pass can leave deep scars, and some are guaranteed to accompany us to the grave.

Pain can be crippling in its isolating quality. No one can know our pain or its degree of intensity the way we do. Nor do we particularly want to share it. People in chronic physical or emotional pain can become highly skilled in presenting a cheerful face to others. This is partly through courtesy: we don’t want our mood to drag others down. We also hide our pain out of a justifiable fear of rejection. A wet blanket is rarely welcome in any society.

Although pain isolates us, it can paradoxically make us more sympathetic towards others. People who are suffering can recognise the signs in others, and are able to respond appropriately in a way that cheerful people can’t. A person who knows the grinding agony of chronic pain will have a more nuanced understanding of what another is going through, and particularly know what not to say. Someone who understands depression first-hand is more likely to recognise a fellow sufferer and respond with extra kindness.

Ultimately, compassion is not about money or medical care. It is about allowing another’s pain to reverberate within us. In practical terms it is about ‘seeing’ and accepting an individual just as he or she is, in the moment, no matter how moody or dysfunctional they may be. This may be the kindest thing we can ever do. Many people are very lonely, isolated within themselves even in the company of others. Neither you nor I can be compassionate in the Bill Gates style, but we can at least be a little more sympathetic to the people we meet each day.

© Perth Meditation Centre 2010