The Virtues: Be Compassionate

The Virtues: Be Compassionate January 25, 2007

The second of the Virtues is compassion. The Latin roots of this word literally mean “suffering together”, but I think this captures at most one-half of what it means to be compassionate, and the less important half at that. While being compassionate does include perceiving others’ pain and distress and being motivated to relieve it, the far more important aspect of compassion is sharing not in others’ suffering, but in their happiness and joy.

My reasoning behind this conclusion is as follows: If we are solely motivated to put a stop to others’ suffering – although that is a worthwhile and laudable goal in itself – people will only help each other when they are in immediate need. On the other hand, if we are motivated not just to ease others’ pain but to take positive action to increase their happiness, then we will be inspired to come together in a true community, and we will all achieve a far greater level of happiness than anyone could attain on their own. The most effective way to contribute to your own happiness is investing in that of others.

Fortunately, we humans come equipped for compassion. We are social creatures, designed by evolution to live together in groups, and possess an elaborate and highly developed theory of mind that allows us to gauge how other people are feeling. But like most skills, compassion is not solely an innate ability but needs to be developed and honed through practice. Here follow some suggestions on how we can use this ability to its best effect.

Being compassionate means being generous. While it is senseless to sacrifice one’s own needs for the sake of others, it is undeniable that millions of people in the First World and elsewhere live in greater far luxury than can possibly be rationally justified. The widespread desire to become rich is a futile treadmill: it leads only to an endless pursuit of ever-greater wealth and luxury but no greater happiness or satisfaction, an endeavor as productive as chasing after a mirage. By contrast, donating money and more importantly time and effort to those who lack basic needs, and whose lives truly can be improved, is a far more virtuous activity. Many churches ask for a tithe, 10 percent of their congregants’ income; but rather than pay homage to the superstitions of the past, I think it a more worthwhile goal to tithe to humanity, and donate that income to charitable secular causes instead.

Being compassionate means letting your actions be guided by love – not in the sense of romantic or sexual love, but a recognition and appreciation for the unique characteristics of everything and everyone. When we are mindful that every event is unique and every person who has ever lived is irreplaceable, it is far easier to value the lives and happiness of others and to desire their misfortunes corrected.

Being compassionate means practicing patience. If a person we meet is tired, stressed, frustrated, afraid, or worn down from the demands of life, and if that strain causes them to act more brusquely or less politely than they otherwise would, it is far too easy for we who do not see the reasons behind their behavior to respond in kind – and this only gives others additional motivation to be hostile and continues the cycle of bad feeling and anger. On the other hand, a gentle reply, even in the face of provocation, can turn aside hostility and prevent it from perpetuating itself. Compassion encourages us to take all mitigating factors into account before reacting.

Being compassionate means treating all need equally. Although most people are willing to help their loved ones or the fellow members of their religious, racial or national tribe – the people who are close to them, either physically or ideologically – we as a species find it far too easy to overlook or dismiss the suffering and want in more distant regions of the world, especially if it occurs among people who are “not like us”. This, despite the fact that the wealthy industrialized nations could with relatively little effort eradicate many scourges that still afflict millions. Similarly, many people are only too eager to help in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but that spirit of need rarely persists, though the need itself almost always does. Being virtuous means overcoming these tribal tendencies and instead identifying the whole human species, rather than some subset of it, as the locus of our compassion.

Being compassionate means establishing and enforcing justice. I believe it is a common misconception that compassion and justice are intrinsically opposed, such that increasing one means decreasing the other. On the contrary, I believe that being a compassionate person demands a solid foundation of justice. Letting an unrepentantly evil person go free without atoning for their misdeeds, thereby ensuring the continued suffering of both their past and future victims, is not compassionate at all. The most compassionate thing to do with a wrongdoer, both for the sake of the innocent and for that person’s own sake, is to bring them to an appreciation of why their transgressions were wrong, and to require that they make recompense to the most thorough extent possible.

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