Compassion is more complicated than what I am qualified to discuss. Compassion is analyzed in so many disciplines that one risks a dissertation when pondering it. For me and in this context of a little blurb, compassion is simply feeling for someone else’s misfortune, pain, suffering, etc. As we know, the word comes from two words, Com meaning ‘co’ as in a co-pilot and passion as in ’emotion.’
I think that experts will agree that compassion is natural to the human species, but it also ‘imprinted’ in us or ‘modelled’ for us in varying degrees. I don’t recall the movie title, but in some film I watched an encounter between two people. One could not tolerate the lack of compassion in the other so he said to the heartless one, “When you die, your heart will stop beating by mere formality.” Ouch. Some people are well-steeped in compassion and seem to be moved by every single human endeavor while others seem to be lacking all sensitivity and are thus thought of as heartless or maybe even ruthless. Ruth is an old word and rarely heard, but it means compassion, sorrowful or remorseful. Why the word ruth has survived only in a negative form, I do not know.
It’s hard to believe, but I was voted the most ruthless person in my seminary class! Our distinguished professor of Patristics had a tendency to ramble on about any topic and so he always had someone in the class use a bell to start class on time and to end the class on time. As I recall, he also wanted a brief interlude during class so he could get up and walk around lest he become too stiff. When the professor said he needed the most ruthless person in the class, the class immediately elected me. And so, I inherited the bell and took pleasure in cutting the professor off to start a break or to end the class. One time, his lecture came to a close earlier than expected and he apparently had nothing more to say. A silence enveloped the room until he finally said, “Ring that bell!”
My mother taught me something of compassion. She had returned to home from the night shift at the hospital and she was visibly shaken. At that time, she was working in Obstetrics and a case came in wherein a mother put her baby in scalding hot water. When my mother told me about this, my immediate response was to ask ‘why’ and ‘how.’ How could a mother do this? She cut me off in my ‘query’ pretty quickly by asking, “Can you imagine how the baby felt?” My mother’s question moved me instantaneously from situation analysis to the raw emotion of excruciating physical pain.
While I believe that compassion is natural to the human mind and heart, it must be said that there are many factors in the world that tend to dim our compassion. Sometimes, we become suspicious and cynical of people who constantly seem to have a problem. We start to feel like we are taken advantage of. In such cases, our compassion grows thin and is less natural and more mechanical. As everyone knows, things that are mechanical tend to slow down and even break down. Another factor is our discrimination. We tamper down our emotional connection with people whom we don’t like for whatever reason. For example, we are less likely to feel compassion for someone who is willfully difficult or mean-spirited.
It seems odd, but compassion can fall into the wrong hands. By this I mean to say that compassion can be overplayed and manipulative. As much as there is false humility, there is false compassion. As such, some people will feed on other people’s emotions and gain a high level of trust. This trust permits manipulation and can lead to serious relationship issues that are inappropriate, self-serving, immoral and, in many cases, illegal.
Overall, however, compassion is a great and necessary component of human existence. It is part and parcel of that which makes human nature what it is, the ability to feel someone else’s emotion. As such then, compassion is a positive way to relate to someone and to humanity itself. When we are self-centered, we lose the benefit of being compassionate and of receiving compassion. When compassion dwindles so do the links we have with each other and in the absence of relationships, compassion is not necessary, nor is it possible. Let us hope that we will always have an ounce or so of compassion. We do not want our hearts to stop beating by mere formality.