Surprised by Compassion

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 04/01/08

A number of years ago, an English newspaper ran a contest that posed a fascinating question: Can a novelist be a saint? A novelist, Piers Paul Read, won. His answer: No. Read argued that a novelist has to know too much about the dark side of life to be a saint.

Well, of course, vices are generally considered more interesting than virtues. In Character’s goal is to enlist the best writers around to show just how interesting virtues are. I hope I can live up to the high standards of IC’s previous editors, including Mark Oppenheimer — a genuine man of ideas — who assigned several of the fine articles in this issue.

I come to In Character from the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), where I edited the late Women’s Quarterly, a feisty magazine for the best kind of independent woman. My former boss at IWF, Grace Terzian, who is now with the Hudson Institute, generously described me as “a former gossip columnist at home in the world of ideas.” Yes, I have a checkered past. It was an art I learned at my mother’s knee.

I like to think I absorbed an ethos of small-town virtue growing up in the Mississippi Delta. My maternal grandfather, in whose house I lived as a child, was fond of telling the story of why there was no Klan in our town. It seems that Senator LeRoy Percy (uncle of the novelist Walker Percy) broke up a Klan planning meeting with an immortal rule: A gentleman never does anything for which he must cover his face. Include the distaff element of society, and this seems to me as good a rule of life as I can imagine.

When I took the reins of In Character, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what compassion was. As I began reading the articles, however, I found myself surprised by compassion. A reigning virtue in our empathetic age, it is often woefully misunderstood.

Few have thought more deeply — or ori­ginally — about compassion than Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Professor Orwin is working on a history of modern compassion to be titled Deepl¥ Compassionate. Compassion, it turns out, is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately as a virtue: It only came to be regarded as such, according to Orwin, in the eighteenth century — quite a surprise to your editor.

One of the reasons Professor Orwin is so much fun to read is that he really — and I’m sure this locution will make him cringe — knows his stuff. His books include The Humanity of Thucydides and The Legacy of Rousseau. From a mutual friend, I know that Professor Orwin is a compassionate man — in the wake of September 11, he and his wife, residents of Canada, felt so intensely for the plight of citizens of the United States that they queued up to give blood in solidarity.

Like Clifford Orwin, James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is always original. His Honor, A History argues that we live in a post-honor society that is ill at ease with the very concept of honor. I remembered Jim’s saying once that his father had had to shoot a man, a would-be deserter, in World War II. This had not kept his father awake at nights. It seemed to me that this was an example of something fundamental about compassion — there are times when it must be stifled. I asked Jim to write about this.

In Jim’s hands, the piece expanded to include what I like to call compassion preening. This involves feeling good about ourselves, not suffering with others. In fact, the title of Jim’s piece is “Feeling Good about ... Me”; in it, Jim argues that compassion belongs to a face-to-face world that is increasingly alien to us. Since we often outsource compassion to government entities, we have less experience of face-to-face compassion than did previous generations. What will this mean?

Medicine is considered a “caring” profession. But what should a doctor do when it’s too hard to care? Compassion fatigue strikes many in the medical profession. You may be surprised to learn Charlotte Allen’s prescription for coping with this. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that many doctors today write their own Hippocratic Oath — sort of like do-it-yourself wedding vows.

It is interesting that compassion rose to the level of a virtue not during the classical age but in one dominated by commerce. And yet most people’s image of the businessman is more Charles Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind than caring capitalist. In his new book It’s Not about the Coffee, Howard Behar, one of the key people in the success of Starbucks, convincingly refutes this notion. Author Michael Shermer, subject of the IC Interview, uses evolutionary economics to make a similar point.

Also in this issue, Bruce Grierson explores the scientific root of compassion — it’s a brain thing. Meghan Cox Gurdon, her generation’s answer to Jean Kerr — whose Please Don’t Eat the Daisies became the classic evocation of hectic motherhood of the 1950s — writes about “smotherly” love, while biographer Deidre Bair writes about the obligations of biographers when their subjects behave like brats. The Manhattan Institute’s always iconoclastic John McWhorter offers a counterintuitive retrospective on compassionate conservatism.