Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
Even a casual look at the world today would reveal an abundance of self-centeredness and fixation on ideologies. Compassion is well hidden. This despite many of the world religions and the findings of psychologists teaching that mercy and compassion lead to favorable personal and social outcomes. The Hebrew prophet Ezra tells us,” For if you return to the Lord, your brethren and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him." (2Chr 30: 9). Buddha taught that, "Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed." [http://www.compassion.ancientfountainofyouth.com/about.html].
Our Eastern Church Father St. Isaac of Syria links compassion to an essential characteristic of God Himself: "God's holy nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of setting us right." St. Isaac also points out that, "Among all God's actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealing with us." (Brock, 1997).
Research psychologists have suggested that compassion is a skill that can be developed by practice. [http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2011/healthy-minds/]. This is certainly not inconsistent with what the Eastern Church Fathers teach about acquiring virtues such as compassion. For example, as St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia I) tells us: "The principle of active accomplishment [practice] signifies the natural capacity for actualizing the virtues."
How can we know if we are compassionate? Some statements from a personal 'compassion assessment' can help, such as: I reach out to people that I see are sad; I am deeply concerned with the well-being of mankind; It is easy to feel others’ pain and joy; I would help a stranger in need; I have compassionate love for people despite nationality, political belief, race, religion or sex; I would sacrifice to help the less fortunate; helping others helps make life meaningful; even if they do wrong, I am willing to aid others in need. [adapted from: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires.aspx] If you answered affirmatively to most or all of these statements, thank God! You would be high in compassion.
The way in which compassion is exercised, both personally and societally, and the means used to do so, also need attention. St. Isaac of Syria (Wensinck, 1923) points out that, “The merciful [compassionate] if he be not just, is blind, in so far as he provides others from wealth which has [not] been gathered with justice and by his own labors, ... [but] ... from [the] acquirements of falsehood, oppression, iniquity and cunning." I wonder if the economy and politics of our beloved United States of America, as well as those of other world nations, would be in such decline if St. Isaac's wisdom was heeded?
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber
Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.