Compassion

Compassion has a special place in the Christian tradition, but it has significant purchase on the thinking of many traditions East and West, both religious and secular. The Dalai Lama, for example, refers to compassion as “the supreme emotion.” Moreover, “compassion” is the most frequently occurring word in the Qur’an; it occurs at the beginning of each of its 144 chapters except the ninth. Alain de Bot- ton affirms tenderness to be a virtue of Christian spirituality, of which atheists should take full note (de Botton, 2012, pp. 166-77).

This emotion is complex. Martha Nussbaum presents her position thus: “To put it simply, compassion is a painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of another person’s misfortune” (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 301). This essentially Aristotelian position is helpful as a starting point. However, Aristotle distinguishes between undeserved and deserved misfortune. For the former, compassion is an appropriate moral response, whereas for the latter, passionless pity is more in order. Nussbaum herself makes the point that the unfortunate person should not bear total responsibility for his or her misfortune. Montaigne agrees: his awareness of human imperfection (including his own) led him to commend toleration and compassion for one’s fellow man. For the Christian who accepts that all humankind is “in the image of God,” the distinction between deserved and undeserved misfortune is irrelevant to the appropriateness of compassion. According to empirical research carried out by Monroe, altruism, the unselfish and devoted care for the well-being of others, is dependent on a perspective adopted by altruists who see themselves “as bound to all mankind through a common humanity” (Monroe, 1996, p. 5). God’s compassion, incarnate in Christ, is for all, not some, and so should that be of Christians.

Christians commonly say a grace before meals. Two in particular come to mind: “Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and us to your service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others” and “Give us grace, O Lord, to be ever thankful for Thy providence, with hearts always ready to provide for the needs of others.” It is as if the sheer gratitude that the family feels for the daily gift of food is associated with compassion for those less fortunate. This tends to confirm that, as I have argued previously, gratitude has a forward-looking perspective as well as the more familiar retrospective aspect.

Empirical research indicates that people with a grateful disposition will tend to feel grateful more frequently, for more aspects of their experience, and toward more people (present and past) and concomitantly be encouraged to behave well toward others (McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang, 2002, pp. 112-27). This suggests indeed that a grateful disposition is not only a “moral barometer” but also a “moral motivator.” Therefore to limit our understanding of the emotion of gratitude to appreciation of past gifts and benefactors is to ignore the stimulus it provokes for present and future acceptance of responsibilities. Such an appreciation is essential, for we do not walk into the future backward; if we do, we may trip and injure ourselves. A grateful person is enriched by an emotional disposition to accept responsibility to work with others for humanity’s, and therefore for creation’s, well-being.

In a world that the Christian regards as the unmerited gift of God’s grace, gratitude cannot be passive: it stimulates compassion, which is itself not a passive condition. If one says of oneself that one feels compassion, one is at the same time claiming that one wants to act compassionately; the emotion of compassion is a statement of intent, not a self-reference to one’s state of mind. To put it clearly, one cannot feel compassion without being compassionate and setting about the business of undertaking concerned action with others to make things better. The image that comes to mind is that of a U-turn; we hold out our hands to grasp the hands of others as we walk into the future together.

The Christian claims that humankind bears the image of God, which means that humans are free to give of themselves for the wellbeing of others, to share in God’s creative activity as he works to bring the world to perfection. It is in God’s nature to be compassionate; it is not an addition to his self-understanding, which arose through experience. It is likewise a quality of human nature but one we often ignore or neglect to express, perhaps through fear of the demands that might be made of us and/or a lack of awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit to sustain us, whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Our condition is rooted in linguistic convention—our uses of language, of which Wittgenstein points out there are very many (Wittgenstein, 1958, para. 23). Austin identifies a style of utterance he calls “illocution,” which he roughly understands as the implicit meaning of a sentence; he distinguishes it from “perlocution,” which refers to the utterance of a sentence as actually to do something (Austin, 1962, pp. 99-131). He offers the word “promising” as an illustration of a further term, “performative.” When a person says, “I promise to meet you at the ski resort in Colorado on Friday, next week,” it is more than spoken words, which have meaning: it is an enactment of intention, which the addressed person is justified in believing. Whether it is true depends on whether the promise, barring accidents, is kept.

Analogously, I suggest that when a person says, “I feel compassion for Mr. McMurdo, whose son was in the marines and lost his life in Iraq,” the sentence is tantamount to being a performative. One is doing something here, not merely mouthing words; the truth, of course, depends on whether the one who expresses compassion does something about it. It may mean writing a letter of condolence, attending the memorial service, and/or sending a check to Help the Heroes. Of course, one may not know what is best to do, but if so, a person of compassionate disposition will take steps to explore how best to express his or her compassion. Gratitude and compassion both prospectively motivate one to do better, accept responsibility, and serve one’s fellow human beings. Typically, one might say that gratitude expresses itself in compassion and compassion in active generosity.

 
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