Compassion n. [mass noun] sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Most of us are moved to pity when we see others, especially children, suffering. Some of us respond, in various ways and to varying degrees. We might, in response to a disaster or charity appeal, donate some cash; a modest amount if that’s all we can afford or more generously if we are better off.
Or we might donate to a charity that particularly appeals to us on a regular basis because the need is not a one-off misfortune but an ongoing requirement of help. Some take the view that ‘charity begins at home’; that they can only afford sympathy or financial help for those nearest to them; their own kind. But others say it’s a small world. We’re all human, all brothers and sisters in the global human family. We all suffer, we all bleed. Or if encountering distress face to face, we might instinctively rush forward, anxious to help.
To a greater or lesser extent, in many people compassion, pity, concern for the suffering of others is an innate part of the human psyche. For those who acquire it, it begins very early in life as a basic social skill. Two-year-olds experience empathy with their little friends, picking up on subtle social emotional cues, such as if the other is upset. Put another way, in sociological terms, they begin to develop emotional intelligence.
The origin of the compassionate response is probably found back in the mists of evolutionary time. What we would nowadays regard as a moral process, a mark of being truly civilised, evolved, anthropologists say, probably as a survival mechanism. It was in an individual’s best interest to be ‘altruistic’ towards kin; in other words, by being nice, contribute to the solidarity and strength of their own kinship group – or tribe – so that the group collectively could better protect itself against hostile ‘other’ groups, thereby increasing the individual’s chances of survival. It was a matter of reciprocity, of mutual aid and protection. In other words: caring.
Well, that may well be so for the ‘charity begins at home’, insular mindset, but it doesn’t really explain concern and pity for strangers. Some would say that for a wider generosity you need an all-embracing morality inculcated by religion.
If you were brought up religiously (in this case Christian-religiously) you’ll remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Luke 10: verses 25 – 37, about the unfortunate man, a Jew, travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jerico, who falls prey to robbers who savagely beat, strip, rob and callously leave him for dead. A priest happens along but ignores him. So does a Levite (Temple assistant). They both take one look and, literally (and nowadays we would say metaphorically), pass by on the other side.
But then a Samaritan comes by. Now Samaritans and Jews usually don’t get along due to religious differences, but the Samaritan sees only a fellow human being in distress. He feels pity. He stops and helps the poor man, pouring wine and oil on his wounds and binding them. Then, putting him on his animal, he takes him on to an inn where he can be cared for. He leaves him there, paying the innkeeper two dinarii for his care, saying he’ll pay more if required when he comes back that way.
After telling the parable Jesus poses the question: which of the three travellers was the [good] neighbour? The powerful moral message is clear: he who showed compassion. And although Luke doesn’t spell it out, there’s a subtle subtext. The one who took action to help was not overtly, orthodoxly religious but of a different tribe from the poor victim. He had a higher moral compass.
Or take another example, also concerning Jews and also about caring for the disliked Other: Oskar Schindler. He was a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party in WW2 who ran an enamel factory in Kracow in occupied Poland. It switched to making armaments and at the height of its production employed around 1,750 workers of whom, because their labour was cheaper, 1,000 were Jews, a fact Schindler was happy to exploit. As the genocide of Jews began to take hold and they were murdered in death camps or worked to death in labour camps, Schindler tried to protect his Jewish workers by bribing officials with increasingly lavish gifts.
In 1944, as the tide turned against Germany and the SS began closing the eastern Polish camps, killing many and transporting the remainder westwards, Schindler persuaded Amon Göth, the commandant of the nearby Kracow-Plaszow concentration camp, to allow him to relocate his factory further west to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland, taking his workers with him. After more bribery Göth agreed, and his secretary typed a list (the subject of the best-selling book and film) of 1,200 Jews, who went to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler undoubtedly saved their lives.
He had to continue bribing the SS to keep his workers safe, however, and by the end of the war his entire fortune had been spent doing so. He died in 1974 and was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the only Nazi Israel honoured in this way. So Schindler was a Good Samaritan too. Unlike those of his countrymen who regarded Jews as inferior beings or vermin to be exterminated, he saw them as suffering fellow human beings. In spite of his adherence to Nazism, he had human compassion.
Or a third example, this time entirely fictional, from my novel The Flautist. In it, a kind-hearted man, Patrick, is a newspaper journalist living and working in London. His daily walk to work takes him past a busker: a scruffy, unattractive young woman who plays the flute like an angel. One evening it’s raining and she’s there as usual, looking very wet and miserable, still gamely trying to earn a pittance from her music. Feeling sorry for her, he takes her to a cafe to escape the rain for a while, where she hungrily devours the food and drink he buys for her. She tells him she’s been trying to recoup after having had her takings stolen, and confesses that she’s homeless.
Feeling even more pity, he impetuously invites her back to his flat for more shelter and a proper meal, where she charms him with a sparkling performance of classical music (she’d been trained at the Juilliard music school in New York). She – platonically – stays the night and a beautiful love affair, good karma for Patrick, later ensues, all because of a kind act of compassionate. Both of their unhappy lives are turned around. All right; this example is fictional, but again it’s a case of kindness transcending instinctive aversion.
Often acts of compassion are directed at people the giver will never encounter, such as when we respond with donations to a disaster. But we might still see, if not on a face-to-face, personal level, the difference it makes to the lives of desperately poor people in Africa, or terrible natural disaster victims, or victims of violence like Syrian or Rohingya Muslim refugees. Or kindness is shown more practically, such as when good-hearted volunteers work for aid agencies. I have enormous respect for them.
Or when celebrities appear on television appeal shows or in the media, giving their time for free, although some cynics might say that it’s good PR for them too. But it’s the unsung heroes, the unknowns, who modestly give of their time, and sometimes of their bodies, like blood or organ donors, giving all year round, who really get my vote. They too (apart from some kidney donors, who may be a relative of the recipient, or sometimes the families of deceased organ donors), never get to meet the recipient of their kindness.
It’s depressing sometimes to read obviously empathy and compassion-lacking comments on social media – especially directed at foreigners – on social media, as if the people making them are utterly lacking in basic humanity, incapable of feeling pity. There have been many of those directed at refugees trying, and often dying in the attempt, to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the past few years. Sometimes they’re flatly opposed to government overseas aid – the charity-begins-at-home thing operating again.
But thankfully, there are many others who are Good Samaritans. Who don’t pass by on the other side.