Words, Episode 2: compassion

Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Karen Armstrong (her recent book is 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life; for reviews see here, here, and here, for example) yesterday on Q, and she made the point that the major religions have largely failed at training their members to be compassionate, instead emphasizing doctrine, and rigid adherence to rules of morality and sexuality. (The Buddhists emphasize compassion, of course, but perhaps Buddhism is more a way of life than a religion.)

Good point.

She emphasizes the Golden Rule, and has been the driving force behind the creation of a Charter for Compassion. In other words, she stresses the importance of action over beliefs. Being compassionate is not an easy road, and it takes courage. I know from bitter experience that in weak moments one is not compassionate.

Armstrong also carefully distinguished between compassion and pity, saying the former is not the latter, which reminded me strongly of this passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (see pages 19 – 20 of the Harper and Row 1984 edition, translated by Michael Henry Heim):

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages—Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance—this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix with the word that means “feeling” (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ-czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).

In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity” (French, pitié; Italian, pietà; etc.), connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

When we achieve sympathetic co-feeling even with our enemies, even with animals, then the world will truly change.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 25 January 2021.)