In an encounter with a good friend yesterday, I was confronted with a question. Simply put, my friend said, “why don’t you write about compassion?” “Ok,” I thought. That should be easy. I know the Greek and Latin words for compassion. I even know what those words are in German and French and could even make a good guess in Spanish. So I know a great deal about it…right?
Of course, intellectually I know quite a bit about compassion. I probably could do a lecture on it and possibly impress a few who don’t know Greek and Latin. But I do not really like to stay at that level. And I gave up lecturing a long time ago…passive learning I tell the students. I want you engaged, active, and really learning. If I am doing all the talking, how can I possibly know whether you are learning?
Instead of Greek and Latin, the only real place to begin is with experience. As in most things having to do with spirituality, if I have no experience of something, I should not be talking about it. It is fine to ask questions so I can learn something. So from my experience what do I know about compassion?
Actually, there are only two key ideas that can be learned. And I think I know only a little bit about each one. Compassion has to do with love and it has to do with suffering. Those are the two key ideas. Anything else is a footnote to love or suffering. And those two ideas are fairly closely related. So let’s look at each one.
Let’s choose to look first at love; that sounds more fun than suffering! I find that I do not use that word as much as many folks do. I fear it has lost much of its power in our current culture. When people can love their children, cars, and carrots, I am no longer able to understand what love really means.
No doubt, there are a zillion ways folks talk about love, but the list narrows when we are talking about the kind of love that is compassionate love. I like the one-liner of Gerald May, the late writer on spirituality and psychiatry. He says, “compassionate love…is a firm, committed, noncontrived giving of time, energy, attention, and wealth to further the welfare and improve the lives of other human beings.” This is powerful for a number of reasons.
I like his adjectives: firm, committed, and noncontrived. Have I loved like this? If so, I am capable of compassion. Too often, our love is wimpy, non-committal, and contrived. Too often we love to get something! Or at least, we say we love to get something. I think that should be called manipulation.
And then, compassion always has to do with suffering. Of course, I can love people who are not suffering, but I cannot call it compassion. Compassion is always a “loving-with,” not “loving-for.” Sometimes I can only be compassionate with someone. I can only “love-with.” Sometimes compassion is stuck “loving-with.” Neither I nor the other person can change the situation.
For example, we all will die. Compassion does not prevent that. In fact, there may be suffering in the dying process. Compassion won’t prevent that. Morphine might be given to alleviate the pain. But morphine does not forestall death either. Compassion may be the only medicine of the soul I can offer. I can “love-with.” And “loving-with” means at one level I “suffer-with.”
When I understand compassion with these key ideas, I have a clue what Jesus was talking about in his language of love. I have a clue what the Buddha meant when talking about karuna, which means working to alleviate the effects of suffering.
When all is said and done, the real question is, “have you been compassionate,” not the question, “do you know what compassion means?” Lord, help be able to say “yes” to the real question!