Love thy Neighbors – The worldwide web. Just don't forget what the word really means

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 04/01/08

As a dictum on how to lead our lives, the Dalai Lama has offered this: “If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” The word for compassion is karuna, and it is, as the Encyclopedia of Buddhism informs us, “the wish that others be free of suffering.” A buddha possesses this quality “to the greatest possible degree.” It must be said that the Dalai Lama’s prescription for happiness can be examined and verified if you read Charlotte Allen’s description of the happy people who work at a L’Arche community in Washington, D.C., where “core members” with disabilities and those who live with them have created a wonderful atmosphere of happiness.

“Compassion and wisdom are the two virtues universally affirmed by Buddhists,” according to the encyclopedia. Ganden Thurman, executive director of Tibet House in New York, assures me that Buddhist compassion and Western compassion are pretty much the same thing. But I can’t help thinking that Western thinkers, specifically the Christian ones, treat compassion a bit more gingerly. Neither the New Catholic Encyclopedia nor the Anchor Bible Dictionary includes it as a virtue, or indeed as an entry, though Anchor refers the reader to the entry for love.

I must admit I was quite surprised that New Catholic Encyclopedia, often my first stop when I am writing something I (vainly?) hope will sound learned, offered articles on computers and compensation, but not on compassion. I felt my trusty source had left me out in the cold — a most uncompassionate act. But I was to discover that compassion, whether a Western traditional virtue or no, is far more interesting than its warm and fuzzy reputation (not that any of us who’ve ever been in need of a drop of human compassion will object heavily to that aspect of it!) might suggest.

Our English word compassion comes from compassus, the past participle of the Latin verb compatior. Compassion means “suffering with” — com (with), and passus (suffering). Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas designates compassion a virtue, though Aristotle analyzed how we experience compassion. Only the hard of heart can fail to respond to the plight of another, but something more than a human emotion seems to be required to elevate the mere feeling of pity into the sublime: a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other, or perhaps even a desire to take upon oneself a portion of that suffering.

Compassion is similar to sympathy — and, in fact, sympathy might be said to be the Greek-based version of compassion: the word comes from the Greek sym (with) plus pathos (suffering) — the same roots in Greek for compassion as in Latin. But in our world, sympathy is somehow weaker than compassion. We have Hallmark sympathy cards, but I have yet to see a Hallmark compassion card. I am willing to argue that this is because compassion is more powerful than sympathy. Empathy is several notches down from either. The word was coined in German from a Greek base (empatheia, passion) in the early twentieth century. It’s all about feelings. While nice enough, empathy won’t make that much difference in the world.

Hospitals have risen and the sick have been nursed, the poor fed and slaves freed because of compassion. A friend suggested to me the other day that William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament whose deep compassion and religious faith (he was an evangelical Christian) led him to become an abolitionist and ultimately to succeed in outlawing the slave trade, should be considered the father of English compassion. Wilberforce’s compassion extended to animals — he was also a leader in founding the animal protection movement that eventually created the Royal Humane Society. In a painful scene in the movie Amazing Grace, about Wilberforce and John Newton, the repentant former slave trader who wrote the beloved hymn, Wilberforce comes upon a man flogging an exhausted horse and stops the beating. Those of us whose lives are enriched by feline or canine companions must always remember to show compassion for them but not to allow this compassion to degenerate into sentimentality.

In our age of empathy, when feelings reign, it is difficult to imagine anybody, much less a priest, railing against any form of compassion. But that is exactly what Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose popular television program in the 1950s attracted millions of viewers, did in one of his talks. Sheen addressed the issue of “true compassion” versus “false compassion.” Sheen claimed that false compassion is having compassion for the murderer (instead of only the murdered and his family) or for the prostitute. Sheen went on to include various other categories that evoke tremendous compassion today. This is a deeply shocking notion for many of us nowadays, though I must confess that I believe that our society does have a bad habit of sometimes giving more compassion to the hurters than the hurting. Quiz Question: Are there people who, by their own actions, forfeit their claim on our compassion? (You’ll probably want to go for the essay form rather than a simple yes or no on this one!)

Compassion can seem so paltry and ineffective against the vast pool of misery in the world. I used to wonder why Mother Teresa performed the relatively limited (it seemed to me) task of helping poor people die, when the mass of suffering of Calcutta is so vast that it seemed to cry out for more systematic action. Human compassion, or so it seemed, appeared insignificant and almost meaningless in this sea of suffering. But for some the why of what Mother Teresa did was not so puzzling. “I have lived all my life as a pauper, but now I die like a king,” said one of her poor. Unlike many of us, he had no trouble whatsoever appreciating acts of kindness that do not restructure society.

Compassion, on a large scale especially, has mucked up countless situations. The Stoic philosophers were fond of saying that when you lack one virtue, you lack them all. A feeling for the suffering of others when not accompanied by other attributes (prudence, honesty, and discernment spring to mind) often leads to tragedy. Compassion has built schools and tended the sick but it has also created new social problems. Marvin Olasky wrote a book entitled The Tragedy of American Compassion in which he provided numerous examples of compassion gone awry. Modern state welfare, which sought to assist the poor, for example, produced an underclass without stable families, which are necessary to nurture compassion in the next generation. Unlike Mother Teresa’s compassion, this was dispensed through bureaucrats who were all too often drastically out of touch with the needs of those they were supposed to serve.

Although there have been many successes, Western humanitarian aid to developing nations has also often ended in humanitarian tragedy. Many attempts to aid poor people in Africa have rejected the impulse of simple compassion in favor of ideology, paternalism, and guilt. The results are inevitably failure. One of the seminal books on this is French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, controversial because it critiques Western compassion as something different from the old concept of compassion — “suffering with” — that includes “culpability and self-hatred.” “An overblown conscience,” Bruckner wrote, “is an empty conscience.”

He explained: “Compassion ceases if there is nothing but compassion, and revulsion turns to insensitivity. Our ‘soft pity,’ as [the novelist] Stefan Zweig calls it, is stimulated, because guilt is a convenient substitute for action where action is impossible. Without the power to do anything, sensitivity becomes our main aim, the aim is not so much to do anything, as to be judged. Salvation lies in the verdict that declares us to be wrong.”

Many today regard compassion primarily as an attractive sensibility, and I think we can spot the origin of this faux compassion in Pascal Bruckner’s complaint. It boils down to this: It isn’t really compassion. We often hear of another kind of compassionate person — the person with compassion for humankind but not family or friends. Perhaps the most famous literary example of this is Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby. She wants to help Africa, but her house is chaos, her children neglected. One falls down the steps, but that is irrelevant compared with Africa. Indeed, Mrs. Jellyby’s eyes “had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if they could see nothing nearer than Africa.”

We often want to express a grandiose form of compassion, when humbler subjects are nearer at hand. As G. K. Chesterton put it:


Oh, how I love Humanity
With love so pure and pringlish,
And how I hate the horrid French,
Who never will be English!

The International Idea,
The largest and the clearest,
Is welding all the nations now,
Except the one that’s nearest.

This compromise has long been known,
This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
And small suburban gardens —

The villas and the chapels where
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.


This raises the question: Are the real-life Mrs. Jellybys (of whom there are many) really compassionate? I can’t answer that, but I can offer an observation. I visited many years ago a homeless shelter run by a man who was considered a saint by many in the homeless movement. He was a man who had left his own family behind, rejecting his sons in favor of his large, and well-publicized, good works. I can only say that he was an angry man and that rodents infested the homeless shelter. His compassion, if that is what drove him, had not created a pleasant place for the homeless (though, in fairness, he was dealing with a large, transient, and problem-ridden population).

Compassion is a wonderful thing, human comfort in times of trouble. But it should be built on our suffering with others, not on feeling smug about ourselves. In this, etymology is destiny.