by Mark Vernon
Compassion is like happiness. Obviously a great good. And yet, I think it is also like happiness in another way. Its realisation is far more tricky than perhaps first meets the eye. A number of thoughts came to mind as I tried to think it through.
Take the business of practising compassion. One can clearly will oneself to do a kindness here, offer a comforting word there. A fraction of the world would be a better place for it. But a concern came to my mind that reaching out might become like the injunction to eat five pieces of fruit ‘n’ veg a day. It becomes a burden, one that you chastise yourself for not fulfilling. Your efforts to show compassion to others become a regular reprimand to yourself.
There is also the danger of tokenism. One act of compassion is used, perhaps unconsciously, to alleviate the guilt of the many quietly abusive acts that can fill an average working day. Or, do I visit my uncle in the care home because I care for him or because I feel secret remorse for his being there in the first place?
This is all counterproductive, if you follow Gandhi’s line of thought that you must be the change that you want to see in the world. So I have the sense that being compassionate towards others requires being compassionate towards yourself too: serious intent, light touch.
To develop the thought further, you might say that the aficionados of compassion possess a certain freedom with themselves. I think this is shown in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road from the man who has been beaten by robbers, though there is no suggestion in the story that they are not compassionate people. Rather, they are constrained by their fear of a half-dead man. And who can blame them? A half-dead toddler, Wang Yue, was recently passed by on the streets of Guangdong by over a dozen people, provoking a moral crisis in China and concern around the world. What the Good Samaritan had was an inner freedom that trumped any fear. He wasn’t tied by convention, or fright, or lack of time. He was free to respond to another human being. Am I that free?
The risks associated with being kind are, in fact, multiple. Will an unexpected act be unwelcome or aggressive? Might it be thought an intrusion or demeaning? Can you judge accurately whether it’s appropriate? Am I free enough to take these risks? Also, there’s an art to receiving acts of compassion: you mustn’t read too much into a warm smile or the squeeze of a hand!
There are interesting parallels between these concerns and the research on empathy. Empathy too is often taken to be an unalloyed good thing. And yet, as Colin Frith, emeritus professor at UCL, recently told me, an empathic feeling might as easily lead to an unkind response of fight or flight as a good response of compassion. Feeling viscerally upset by someone else’s pain might make you turn your back. Alternatively, collective empathy with my in-group can lead to collective animosity towards those perceived as others. Such empathy powers war. The risk is that my compassion for some leads to self-righteous anger at others.
All that said, compassion has to start somewhere. And to a certain extent it seems possible to train oneself by attempting to form habits of reaching out. Perhaps the best advice is to aim high but start small. For it seems to me that compassion is really aimed at something big and difficult – nothing less than a transformation of your life and yourself. A good question to ask is whether you really want that to happen.