Feeling Good about... Me — but that's not really the point, is it?

James Bowman | Posted on 04/01/08

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart

T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”

There is a scene in the classic John Wayne movie The Sands of Iwo Jima (1948) in which Wayne’s character, a Marine sergeant, is ordered to hold at all costs his position on a thinly manned American line against the Japanese. As night falls, he and his foxhole buddy, a man whom he regards as a surrogate son, hear the cries of a wounded man whom both of them love. The buddy, played by John Agar, is determined to go to the man’s aid, even if it means leaving his post. If he doesn’t the man will probably die. Wayne’s sergeant refuses him permission to go. “Aren’t you human at all?” asks Agar’s character, and then proceeds to tell the sergeant that he will have to shoot him to stop him from going to the wounded man’s aid. Wayne levels his rifle at him and says, “Then that’s just what I’ll do,” in tones so persuasive that the other instantly subsides.

In war such awful choices are not uncommon. My father once told me of a similar episode that happened to him on patrol in the jungles of the Philippines in the spring of 1945. Only he had to follow through on the threat. As a nineteen-year-old buck sergeant, he was second in command of his squad, taking up a position as last man in order to make sure that everybody kept going in the right direction. One man, who had already shown signs of cracking under the strain of combat, announced that he couldn’t take it anymore and was leaving. “If you do, I’ll shoot you,” my father warned him. He said he didn’t care, as he would probably be shot anyway. So my father shot him — in the leg. “I didn’t want to kill the son of a bitch,” he later told me.

If you are faced with the prospect of shooting somebody, just though it may be, it is highly likely that you will perform this task more effectively if you don’t feel his pain. With an enemy, this is relatively easy to do, as he is also trying to shoot you, but there are times, and not only in war, when it is a lot harder, yet necessary all the same. This has become almost a shocking notion since compassion has come to be seen as an adjunct of public policy and so taken on the bland normalcy of a public virtue. That kind of compassion, however, is both easy to fake and done more for the sake of the allegedly compassionate than for that of those whose theoretical sufferings they share. If some Third World dictator uses Western aid, supposedly the fruit of our compassion, to buy himself a fleet of luxury cars — as many of them do — it may be hard to persuade voters that it matters, since the money was given in the first place mainly to make them feel compassionate and not because there was any reason to think that it would do much good.

Though it is often — and often rightly — placed in opposition to honor, compassion is like honor in belonging to a face-to-face world, like a battlefield, that is increasingly alien to us. Even battlefields now often involve combat at long distance. Just as there is no honor in general — that is, apart from particular people and particular actions in particular social contexts — so there is no compassion, properly called, where there is no particular person with (com) whom suffering (passion) is shared. Abstract or hypothetical suffering — as of whole classes of people, supposed by some philosophical or political hypothesis to be suffering merely by virtue of their membership in the class — cannot be shared except in a theoretical way. Politicians may call that sort of sharing compassionate because it makes them look good and wins votes among the class of the putatively suffering, ex hypothesi, but it should be easy to see the difference between that and the more immediate or, I would say, genuine kind of compassion — that is, the kind that costs the compassionate a share in the sufferer’s pain.

If it isn’t quite so easy as it used to be to see this difference, it is at least easy to see why it isn’t. For most of us, real, firsthand suffering is an ever-diminishing part of life. For our grandparents and great-grandparents, illness and death and genuine want were everyday occurrences. When they weren’t suffering these things themselves, they could see people around them every day — in many cases people with whom they were personally acquainted — who were. Nowadays, illness and death are faintly scandalous, and their victims are swiftly hustled away from our homes and offices to purpose-built institutions for quarantine. And if the destitute are still to be met with in the streets of our cities, they are seldom blind, crippled, or obviously starving, while their tattered garments and, in many cases, drug habits are confusingly similar to those of affluent college students.

The student fashion for dressing like the indigent ought to be a reminder of the extent to which compassion these days is largely a matter of posturing. It is still regarded as a desirable trait, but we prefer to exercise it where the emotional cost is within our shrinking budgets. The obvious way to do that is to politicize it. I remember walking with a fellow American in Britain in the 1970s when we were accosted by a beggar. My companion set her jaw and looked straight ahead of her as she walked determinedly on. After slipping a coin into the man’s hand and gesturing with fellow-feeling as he rolled his eyes toward my retreating acquaintance, I quickened my pace to catch up with her. “This is a socialist country,” she said, turning to me with a certain severity. “Such people have recourse to the social services provided by the state.”

Though times were harder then, beggars were not so common, either in Britain or America, as they are now, and I’m not sure how great a toll such abstract or political compassion had taken on my friend. I suspect not much. I wonder, too, if she would have cheerfully shelled out had we been in America. Theoretical compassion had relieved her not only of the need for the face-to-face sort but also of the sense of guilt for not having any that I doubted whether it could have had any other purpose for her. Decades later, I see the same sort of instinct at work in those nerdish economists who delight in demonstrating with facts and figures that Bill Gates is a more admirable person than Mother Teresa for the sheer amount of good, so the statistics tell us, that his money must have done. It’s all very well being engaged on a personal level in one of the misery-pits of the world like Calcutta, but you can get a lot more done for their good if you’re a billionaire in Seattle.

All true, no doubt. But admirable though Gatesian-style charity may be, it is still not the same thing, or even the same kind of thing, as compassion. Compassion in isolation from the immediacy of real-world experience of suffering is always more or less an assumption of feeling because we think it is creditable to us rather than an actual feeling. How can you have real feelings about people you have never met? This Second Life of the emotions is analogous to the fantasy war-gaming that has filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Western honor culture. And just as the video game version of heroism keeps us from having to face the dangers of real combat while giving us a simulacrum of its excitement, so the pose of abstract compassion makes us feel good about ourselves while keeping us from having to look real suffering in the face.

It also keeps us from having to face up to the hard cases, where compassion to some is cruelty to others. The man my father shot was evacuated along with the honorably wounded, and he probably spent the rest of the war in the relative comfort of a field hospital — which was a less bad outcome, even for him, than the indiscipline under fire, which is what would have resulted from a misplaced compassion for his weakness, would have been for the other men in the squad. Similarly, it might be compassionate to a murderer or a rapist to let him out of prison, but it is the reverse of compassionate to those whom he proceeds to kill or assault once he has been given his freedom. Who would praise a man for his compassion in not resorting to violence toward a killer who was intent on taking the lives of his own family or friends?

T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” (1940), which was one-fourth of his poetic masterpiece, the Four Quartets, surprises us in the passage with which I began, and in four subsequent verses in the same form, with a series of paradoxes and oxymorons — like “sharp compassion” — and apt but unexpected verbs — like “questions” for what the scalpel does to diseased flesh. He does this partly because he knows he is trying to break out of the prison of cliché, or what, earlier in the same poem, he describes as “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings.” The lurking but unstated cliché in this case is of course the one about being cruel to be kind.

For those experiencing the sharp compassion of the healer’s art, it must be a little extra, added cruelty to be told by the healer that he is only being cruel to be kind. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s the wounded surgeon who plies the steel because it is his being wounded that gives him a just claim to “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” Without it, compassion itself is nothing but a banality — an occasion for self-congratulation to the compassionate rather than succor to the suffering.