“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Frederick Buechner)
The word compassion has a beautiful sound to it. For a long time the word has had an ‘onomatopoeic’ association for the author of this humble reflection. He has connected it to a “bell”, a campana. Not only on account of the similarity in sound, but more so because of the visual image of a heart which strikes like a beautiful bell to bring hope to those nearby. Etymologically, compassion, is originally from the Latin: com [with] and pati [to suffer]. It literally means to suffer together with another. Is there anything in the world more valuable and full of potential than comprehending the pain of another and doing whatever we can to relieve that soul of some of its hurt? We look for that moment when we might jump into the water to save a drowning child or to show our courage by pulling out a stranger from a burning car. Yet these situations where great acts of bravery are required, will more likely than not, never be demanded of us. The irony is that every day we can perform such marvellous acts in different and no less significant ways.
To enter into the pain of another, to share in the affliction of my neighbour, to have empathy and then to go beyond it and to do something in response, that is compassion. To come to the aid of another, is a great step forward in our realization of what it means to be truly human. Buddhism teaches that to realize enlightenment there are two qualities which must be developed, these are wisdom and compassion. It is said that in the Qur’an compassion occurs more frequently than any other word. In the Judaeo-Christian scriptures compassion is at the core of its ethical revelation which for many is summarized in the “Golden Rule” of Christ: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Compassion is to refuse to give in to hopelessness, not only in our reaching out to another, but also in the very act of loving ourselves. The often misinterpreted German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has put it succinctly, “Compassion is the basis of all morality”. It is also the seat of love for without it, love is without its flesh.
Compassion can be practised daily, in the ordinary things. If only we could know how many fires of human desperation we could extinguish by these simple and everyday acts. An uplifting letter of support to friend or stranger or better still, to a “foe” who might be suffering; the gift of your coat to somebody who is wet and cold; stepping into a hospital unannounced to ask if you might share some moments with the sick; practising the great art of forgiveness; taking the blame for another who might not possess your strength; stepping over an ant hill on your way to work; giving up your position in the queue to someone in a greater hurry than you; saying sorry when you don’t really have to; helping someone who is unsure cross the busy street; telling a blind man or woman that truly they are beautiful; sending a bouquet of flowers to a random address. Even a knowing smile can save a life. All of these things, this little list of charities which return to the giver a far greater blessing than what is given, have the potential to change lives. This person too, the recipient of your grace, will remember and add to this gift for it will invariably be paid forward.
Often enough compassion might be as simple an act as accepting each other, and understanding that each of us will grow and flourish in different times and in different places.
For others in those extreme places of unfathomable love and grace, compassion might well mean actual identification. As it did for those early missionaries who for the sake of their beloved lepers not only lived together with them in abandoned colonies, but also allowed for themselves to be stigmatized, literally, and to suffer alike in the flesh.
Here is the greatest strength of all, rising above our deepest fears and hidden prejudices. To step into the shoes of the other. There is the beginning.
“My dear Lord, please allow for these words, for these expressions of charity to take on flesh, that my desire to practise compassion becomes real and does not remain hollow. Allow for the eyes of my heart to see the presence of the Creator in each and every hand which might reach out to me.”