One reader, a prominent surgeon on the west coast, recently asked me to ponder compassion. He asked, "Is it dead?"
When you read the papers and watch the news, it can certainly look dead. The world seems full of hatred, anger, mean-spiritedness, resentment, bitterness, and cries for revenge. Comb through reader comments online for mainstream media. You don't have to go find dark corners of the internet to come across streams of vitriol and out-of-control nastiness. It seems to be a vile current in which far too much of humanity swims.
The great physicist Stephen Hawking recently said that in his view the chief threat to the continuation of life on earth is human aggression. From embattled areas in the middle east to the street corners of US cities, and even in the executive suites of too many global companies, there is often far more aggression on display than kindness, goodness, and gentleness.
Where can compassion be found? Whether you find your greatest insight into human nature in the scientific story of evolution, or in religious diagnoses of our condition, one thing is clear: Self centeredness is the main theme, whether in biology or the Bible, and even in Buddhist texts. The struggle to survive in a challenging environment encourages a focus on the self and its needs, along with an aggressiveness in meeting those needs and defending against any threat. On the evolutionary accounts, all life becomes hardwired in self and survival. And such things as cooperation, collaboration, community, and finally compassion, all arise within close kin groups for the sake of greater survival chances. But outside those groups, these noble things can be hard to find. There are parallel religious accounts that cite a drive for independence, control, and self assertion as the key to our problems. And none of these conditions is conducive to compassion.
What is compassion? A fellow feeling that interprets love as kindness. It's etymologically a "feeling along with" another that sees the other's needs and wants, weaknesses, and hopes, aspirations and desires with understanding and acceptance that undergirds and contextualizes any difference or moral judgment.
Compassion puts itself into the place of another, and acts with loving understanding. Compassion moves out of the self and into a mode of helping, serving, and lifting up those who are in any sort of need. And we're all in some sort of need, aren't we?
Compassion is most often too quiet to gain wide notice, or the attention of the media. It still lives, and takes place each day, and in sometimes quite unexpected places. There are locales stridently hostile to it. And there are other domains where it flourishes. But it's still a part of the mix of our world. I see it often. And I remind myself now and then to be more attentive to how I might let it flow through me.
I bet you do, too. And of course, the less we see it, the more we need to be it.