The Trouble with Compassion

“I feel pity for him, and that is a poor sign of love.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880, The Brothers Karamazov


What does it mean to be compassionate?

It always helps to look at the definition of a word when it’s so often used, as its meaning can become muddled. In the Oxford Dictionary, compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, e.g, ‘the victims should be treated with compassion’”. It’s a compliment to be thought of, or to be called, compassionate. It conjures images of gentle, holy figures, healing the world through kindness. But there is a problem when advocating for compassion, depending on our definition and application.

If we say that compassion means to show pity and concern for another’s suffering, or to be kindly, then it is essentially useless.

Compassion involves a relationship where one person feels the other person is, in some way, worse off than them. We feel compassion for someone who is suffering, or on hard times. If we are to define and apply compassion as we have above, what actual help is it to the other? Like handing someone a glass of water while they are engulfed in flames, it does very little. The danger is that we are only really fulfilling our own need or want to be ‘compassionate’ people, in this vain sense. We offer the glass of water, allowing us to sit back satisfied as we fulfilled our instinct to ‘help’. It is about satisfying our own needs, leaving the person in trouble no better off than before our ‘compassion’.

“If you wish me well, do not stand pitying me, but lend me some succour as fast as you can; for pity is but cold comfort when one is up to the chin in water, and within a hair’s breadth of starving or drowning.”

Aesop, 1792, “The Fox in the Well”, Fable CLVI, Fables of Aesop

Here’s a different view, on the potential of compassion.

We have a special ability as people to feel empathy for another’s suffering. However, for our compassion to be of any real use, it cannot be just a shallow charade. Instead, we must genuinely want the other person to succeed. When this is really our concern, pity and kind words aren’t enough. When we are focused on supporting the improvement of another, it may not always be pretty. It might involve some very ‘unkind’ truths, as well as creating boundaries and expectations. It may mean urging them to shoulder responsibility and stand on their own feet. None of these things are easy. Instead of lowering ourselves to meet them down in the dregs, it means making them look up, so as to see where they are and where they could be. Possibility lies in that space. Compassion shouldn’t be about meaningless displays of pity and kindness, it should mean behaviour and action that is directly concerned with the well-being and elevation of another person.

“But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting place for his suffering, but a hard bed, as it were…: thus will you profit him best.”

Friedrich Nietzsche,1883 and 1885, Thus Spake Zarathustra

We show our children compassion, but we are first and foremost concerned for their well-being now, and over time.

We want to see them succeed. So we make them do things that they don’t want to do, like chores. We show them our aversion to their behaviour through discipline. Our action is in accordance with our desire to see them succeed across time, not in order to gratify them right now. We don’t go around treating adults like children but the same idea applies; the compassion doesn’t always overtly lie in the act right now. But when a child grows into a functioning adult, or when someone lifts themselves up with our support or encouragement, then we can see that all the behaviour proceeding that were in fact acts of real compassion. Behaviour and action committed to the well-being and elevation of another person.

“… active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880, The Brothers Karamazov

Malnazar and Aghap'ir, 1637 - 1638, David in Prayer
Malnazar and Aghap’ir, 1637 – 1638, David in Prayer
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