To be compassionate means to feel the suffering (the "passion") of another, along with the desire to alleviate it. The archetypal symbol of compassion is Jesus on the cross, taking on the sins and the suffering of the world.
This image of God as a man dying in agony is quite peculiar when we think about it. Pagans often found it repugnant and absurd when missionaries tried to convert them. Gods are usually represented as all-powerful beings who triumph over their adversaries, which is why we curry their favour. This symbol, though, tells us a lot about compassion is it is understood in our culture, and for this understanding we need to go back to the Old Testament.
Traditional Judaism doesn't believe in life after death. Its spirituality is fully embodied in this life and not in the beyond. As the high priest says in Ecclesiastes: "That which befalls beasts also befalls the sons of men. All are of the dust and return to dust." This in turn leads to the make-the-best-of-it attitude of the Old Testament: Whatsoever thy hand find to do, do it with all thy might: for there is no work, no knowledge, no wisdom in the grave whither thou goest." Ecclesiastes offers an even better exhortation: "Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of your life. A man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink and to be merry."
As a Jew, Jesus almost certainly believed that his death would be his end. The idea of life after death and the immortality of the individual soul took a few more centuries to become fully established as church dogma. In fact, Christianity has retrospectively attributed those beliefs to Jesus. We now see Jesus as a god who dies and is resurrected, which makes him one of a long lineage of death-and-rebirth nature gods in that part of the world.
Jesus himself, however, was probably just a man facing a horrible death. His last words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" strongly suggest he never expected to finish up nailed to a cross. A messiah is not supposed to die like a common criminal from misjudging the wrath of those he criticised.
Yet Jesus's death was not in vain. It left us with a marvellous symbol that has percolated through Western society ever since. The cross represents the human body and, like Jesus, we are all nailed to our bodies. This exposes every one of us to suffering, loss, failure, injustice, meaninglessness, old age and death. We may escape the worst of it. We may triumph above it, anaesthetise ourselves against it or make peace with our lot, but this is the world we all inhabit. In particular, this is the territory of spirituality and compassion. Christianity and the crucifix remind us that we all suffer, that we're all in this together, and ask, "What are you going to do about it?"
For the past 2000 years, Christians have been feeding the hungry, helping the orphans and widows and caring for the sick and dying, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. They have also cajoled and persuaded the rich and powerful to do the same, in order to be seen as good citizens. Hence the monumental scale of charity, philanthropy and welfare in the West. To be a good Christian, you have to put your money where your mouth is. "By their fruits shall ye know them," said the Bible.
This idea of universal compassion survived the decline in church authority and is now embedded in our secular institutions, particularly through taxation. I am quite happy to give a fraction of my income to the government so it can help the needy. The idea of letting the poor and the sick die on the streets is anathema to us. All Western governments are committed to social welfare, even if it costs 10-20% of the budget. Even the whole ethos of godless communism is Christian at heart.
Anyone who suffers knows the inescapable nail-through-the-flesh quality of it. Pain traps us in an eternal, existential present and turns both the past and future into ghosts. Once we were happy or at least free of pain, but those days of innocence will never return. Nor is it possible to imagine ever being free of pain in the future. That's the nature of pain.
The consoling words of others who tell us "It will pass" seem fatuous and insulting, even if well meant. When we're in pain, it feels like forever. Even pains that do pass can leave deep scars, and some are guaranteed to accompany us to the grave.
Pain can be crippling in its isolating effect. No one can know our pain or its degree of intensity the way we do. Nor do we particularly want others to know. People in chronic physical or emotional pain often become highly skilled in presenting a cheerful face to others. This is partly through courtesy: we don't want our mood to drag others down. We also hide our pain out of a justifiable fear of rejection. A wet blanket is rarely welcome in any society.
Although pain isolates us, it can paradoxically make us more sympathetic towards others. People who are suffering can recognise the signs in others, and are able to respond appropriately in a way that cheerful people can't. A person who knows the grinding agony of chronic pain will have a more nuanced understanding of what another is going through, and particularly know what not to say. Someone who understands depression firsthand is more likely to respond with extra kindness to a fellow sufferer.
Our understanding of another's pain is based on what we've experienced ourselves, and it starts very young. A two year old will recognise that another child is upset and take remedial action to alleviate that pain based on what works for him. A child has limits, however. He will also recognise when his mother is upset, but won't understand the far more complex reasons why. He will see the pain, but not feel it.
A mother, though, has the basis for good understanding of her child. She was once a child herself. This means that as we get older, our capacity for empathy also grows, but it is still never perfect. A young adult, even one who knows everything, is unlikely to understand the subtle disabilities of ageing. Young doctors can skilfully alleviate the symptoms of older patients, which is what we want, without really knowing how they actually feel.
Older people, having experienced much and having suffered the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are potentially in the best position to be truly compassionate. We typically become calmer, more philosophic and happier as we get older, according to the best research, but becoming wiser does have a downside. It makes it harder to empathise with the dramas of youth. I find it now takes a certain effort to imagine the intoxications of romantic love, for example.
I suspect we are born with a greater or lesser capacity for empathy that we can't do much about. At one extreme we see the little kids who are distressed to see a dying bug. At the other extreme we have the "greed is good" mob. Trying to be more compassionate than we are may be rather like trying to love your mother and father because you are supposed to.
Not everyone can be empathetic, but compassion does have another dimension: it generally implies action. In fact, we can see someone as compassionate regardless of their capacity for feeling. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has now devoted virtually all his wealth to charity. He doesn't seem to be a particularly warm or sympathetic individual. He knows the poor in Africa are suffering, but does he actually feel their suffering the way they do? We see him as compassionate because of what he does to help, not because of his depth of feeling.
This brings us to another question. Is compassion natural or is it a social construct? If it was natural, we should find it fairly equally in all societies. In fact, compassion in the form of charity, philanthropy and welfare is almost entirely a Western phenomenon. In the East, tolerance, goodwill and non-violence are the ideal virtues, but compassion in our Western sense of disinterested, benevolent action is almost completely absent.
Ultimately, compassion is not about money or medical care. It is about "feeling with" another. It is about "seeing" and accepting an individual just as he or she is, in this moment. This may be the kindest thing we can ever do. Many people are very lonely, isolated within themselves, though surrounded by people and activity. They go through life never having been "seen" by anyone.
Neither you nor I can be compassionate in the Bill Gates' style, but we can still love the people we meet. We can do this through empathy, listening, silence and a willingness to make a space for the other in our minds. All of us can be compassionate in this way, every single day.