Sympathy or self interest?

Is it what we feel or what we do that determines whether we're a compassionate person? Eric Harrison probes the true nature of compassion.

Isit what we feel or what we do that determines whetherwe're a compassionate person? Eric Harrison probes thetrue nature of compassion.

I imagine most of us feel somewhat shamefaced aboutcompassion. Jesus, in his typically provocative way,said to the rich man, "Sell all you have and givethe money to the poor, if you want to enter the kingdomof God." Jesus knew perfectly well he wouldn'tdo it.

Against that kind of standard we all fall short. We'reknow we're much more calculating in our generosity.If you gave to the Asian tsunami fund, you probablythought something like "Will $50 or $100 or $200be enough?" Enough for what? Enough to make usfeel good? Compassion is commonly flavoured with guilt.We know we place self interest way ahead of compassion.How much did you give to charity last year? It was probablysomething like "99 per cent for me, one per centfor them" at best. Furthermore, we know that selfinterest works. We can't say the same for compassion.

Compassion is supposed to be good for everyone concerned,yet we also know that it often goes wrong. Some people"love too much", and sacrifice themselvesstupidly to others. Many people help others blindlyand inappropriately, more to assuage their own needs.

Compassion is often a cover for manipulation and power.Foreign aid commonly forces poor nations to become vassalsof the donor country. Evangelical churches typicallypraise compassion and generosity, and then expect youto tithe 10 per cent of your income to them.

The great scientist Richard Dawkins in his book TheSelfish Gene even argued that compassion is a myth.He said that all apparently altruistic behaviour isselfish at heart. Because we are social animals andcan't survive alone, we indirectly help ourselves whenwe help others in our tribe or community. Of course,many people do sacrifice themselves for the sake ofothers, but Dawkins has an answer for that. He saidthat our primary instinct is not to stay alive, butto get our genes into the next generation. If we can'thave offspring ourselves, the next best thing is toensure that the progeny of our closest kin survive.So a wolf who gives up his share of food to the dominantbreeding pair and helps protect and care for their pupsis not being altruistic. He is just helping his genesinto the future.

The idea that all our behaviour is fundamentally motivatedby self interest goes back a long way. "All thingsare done for the sake of self", said the Buddha.Even charity, in the East, is linked to the idea thatit will give you a better rebirth.

The idea that altruism is unnatural received a hugeboost with the Darwinian theory of evolution, whichseemed to prove that Nature, "red in tooth andclaw", is a ruthless battleground for the survivalof the fittest.

This idea was immediately applied to politics. SocialDarwinism argued that the poor, the sick and the weakshould not be cared for, but allowed to die. It arguedthat compassion, charity and welfare were unnaturalChristian imposts on the vigour of a strong society.Because this idea led naturally to the Nazi philosophyof weeding out those they judged as social undesirables,it has fallen somewhat out of favour nowadays.

Yet the question still remains: "What's in itfor you?" Why do we help and care for others? Whydo we raise children, for example? Parents probablysurrender more of their time, money, health and personalprospects for their children than anyone else. Theirgenerosity is colossal if rarely appreciated by anyone.Yet because parents get satisfaction from what theydo, we can't say their actions are perfectly selfless.

Even if compassion is rarely pure, it may still bea great virtue. But what exactly is it? Is it a feeling,or an action or both? Can you have one without the other?

The word "com-passion" literally means "tofeel the suffering, or passion, of another". Thiskind of deep sympathy is an emotional response thatis quite distinct from any subsequent action you mighttake. Some people feel the pain of the world intensely,even if they can't do much to help, while others don'tfeel much at all. Are those who feel the truly compassionateones? This deep empathy is what the word implies.

Nonetheless, we generally assume that compassion impliesaction. In fact, we can see someone as compassionateregardless of their capacity for feeling. Bill Gates,the world's richest man, has now devoted virtually allhis wealth to charity. He doesn't seem to be a particularlywarm or sympathetic individual. He knows the poor inAfrica are suffering, but does he actually feel theirsuffering the way they do? We see him as compassionatebecause of what he does to help, not because of hisdepth of feeling.

So why does he do it? It is probable that Christianityhas played a part. All great cultures encourage compassionas a way of forming cohesive, mutually supportive communities,but it is easy to see this as merely enlightened selfinterest. Jesus was unique in demanding that we alsolove people outside the tribe.

The Jewish prophets before him spoke only to Jews,and honoured Judaic law. Jesus, on the other hand, addressedthose on the margins of Jewish society or outside it.He consorted with publicans, prostitutes, Romans andsinners. His message was that you should love and carefor anyone, just as they are, and you don't expect themto behave like you. In other words, he cut compassionloose from its tribal base and universalised it.

Despite this message, Christianity would have remaineda Jewish cult if it wasn't for St Paul. He said youdon't have to take on the whole Judaic law to followJesus. Being an adult Gentile, he probably didn't wantto be circumcised. This was why Christianity was ableto transcend Judaism and sweep throughout the ancientworld.
In Christianity, compassion is both a feeling and anaction. The great symbol of compassion as a feelingis that of Jesus on the cross, taking on the sufferingof the world. Yet Christianity also demands action aswell.

"By their fruits shall ye know them," saidthe Bible. To be a good Christian, you have to put yourmoney where your mouth is. For the past 2000 years,Christians have been feeding the hungry, helping theorphans and widows and caring for the sick and dying,regardless of whether they are Christian or not. Theyhave also cajoled and persuaded the rich and powerfulto do the same, in order to be seen as good citizens.Hence the monumental scale of charity, philanthropyand welfare in the West.

This idea of universal compassion is now embedded inour secular institutions. The idea of letting the poorand the sick die on the streets is anathema to us. AllWestern governments are committed to social welfare,even if it costs 10 per cent of the budget. Even thewhole ethos of communism is Christian at heart. Thisbrings us to another question. Is compassion naturalor is it a social construct? If it was natural, we shouldfind it fairly equally in all societies. In fact, compassionin the form of charity, philanthropy and welfare isalmost entirely a Western phenomenon. In the East, theidea is much weaker. It is more of a mindset of tolerance,friendliness and non-hostility, rather than an action.If compassion is good, can we become more compassionate?We can always be more friendly and helpful, but canwe actually "feel the suffering of others"any more than we are naturally capable of?

I suspect we are born with a greater or lesser capacityfor empathy that we can't do much about. At one extreme,we see the little kids who are distressed to see a dyingbug. At the other, we have the "greed is good"mob. Trying to be more compassionate may be rather liketrying to love your mother and father because it's expectedyou would.

Useful as it is to materially help the poor and thesick, this kind of compassion has its limits. We cantend to a sick person without actually taking the timeto feel what that person is feeling. We may act outof guilt or pity or duty, but without that deep empathythat should be at the heart of compassion. There is,however, a proven way of becoming more empathetic, andthat is to suffer more yourself. If you don't know whatpain is like, how can you feel another's pain? As weget older, we understand so much more of the loss, sickness,failure and depression that are so commonly part ofan ordinary life. To truly help someone, you have toknow what they feel. A healer in any field who has personallyplumbed the depths will be better than some bright youngthing straight out of university or college.

In fact, true compassion is not about money or medicalcare. It is about "feeling with" another.It is about "seeing" and accepting an individualjust as he or she is, in this moment. This may be thekindest thing we can ever do. Many people are very lonely,even though surrounded by people and activity. Theygo through life never having been "seen" byanyone.

Neither you nor I can be compassionate in the BillGates style, but we can love the people we meet. Wecan do this through empathy, listening, silence anda willingness to make a space for the other in our minds.This kind of compassion is possible for all of us, everyday.

Eric Harrison runs the Perth Meditation Centre www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au

Artwork by Annie Otness: www.ozartworks.com

moreonline articles available

or pick up this month's copy of
NOVA Magazine >>