Friday, April 16, 2010

The Grace of Compassion

-by Saturnine

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. - The Buddha

As Wiccans we are encouraged to feel compassion and understand the suffering of others. Doreen Valiente, in her Charge of the Goddess, mentions eight Wiccan virtues. “Let My worship be within the heart that rejoices; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.” We also see a beautiful example of compassion in one of the ritual tools, the scourge. Attributed to Aradia, it is a whip with 7 knots, symbolic of suffering, ritually administered lightly as possible to prostate participants. This is a visual reminder of suffering and the compassion we feel for others and the love we give them in return. But where does love turn into compassion? What is the difference between the two? Wikipedia defines compassion as, “A human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering.”

As Wiccans, this is an important emotion to feel, not just for our fellow humans, but for the plants and animals with which we share this Earth. Along with Forgiveness, Compassion may be one of the more difficult graces to master.  How often have we walked past a crying child in the mall or a homeless man begging for food? The answer is probably more times that you think. During our daily routines we are often in what is called an “urban trance”, where we are so focused on ourselves, that we ignore the bigger world around us , leading to deeper and deeper self absorption and bringing us further away from compassion. This “trance” is often made greater depending on our personal feelings of busyness or feeling rushed.

There is an interesting study that was done at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Students were given an assignment to create and give a sermon. Half of the students were given the story of The Good Samaritan, while the other half were given various other Bible stories. On their way to give the sermon, a man in obvious distress was placed in their path. The experiment was to see who would stop to help the man and if thinking about compassion would make them more likely to help. The conclusion of the experiment was that thinking about the Good Samaritan did not increase helping behavior, but being in a hurry decreased it. In this example, their focus was in the wrong direction. They were so self focused, that they did not use the opportunity, literally placed right in front of them to do what they could.

This study leads to other questions about compassion and what we as Wiccans often do in its cause. When we shift from personal compassion to global compassion, we may find that we are less likely to try and make a difference. Ethically, we try to “harm none” during our daily lives. This is often discussed at length especially in concern to the harm we cause to the Earth by using certain household products, wearing certain types of fabric, eating meat and the consequences of where that meat comes from, etc. To have compassion for these causes is it necessary to try and alleviate each ounce of suffering we create? Is knowing about and feeling for these causes enough to count as compassion? Should we be using every opportunity to help and feel compassion, or will this eventually drive us to the point of depression when we cannot help? It is interesting to note here that when we help those in need we often feel good about it. Again, we focus on ourselves in this instance and how nice it is to help others in need. We feel better about ourselves before we begin to feel better for those we have helped. But this may be able to balance the feelings of distress we feel when we cannot or are unable to help.

Compassion can also be confused with pity in these instances. “Love and knowledge led upwards to the heavens, /But always pity brought me back to earth; /Cries of pain reverberated in my heart /Of children in famine, of victims tortured /And of old people left helpless. /I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, /And I too suffer.” (Bertrand Russell)  Pitying something or someone is not the same as compassion. A true feeling of the relation to its suffering is what compassion is all about. We need to be able to place ourselves in the shoes of those we feel for in order to understand compassion. As Russell writes, we too must suffer.

It is a psychological fact that as humans we feel for and with our fellow humans. I have met several Wiccans who focus greatly on their ability to empathize with others quite skillfully. This empathic link should lead us to take into consideration what makes others feel comfortable, but we often ignore what would make them feel better than comfortable. How often do we have conversations with others that lead to talking about ourselves? How often do you ask about the other person and focus entirely on them? Becoming more compassionate may lead us to pay more attention to the world around us in general.

This emphatic link can be seen most recently in the various charities and benefits that are being held for those around the word suffering from natural disasters. These televised events create shared compassion for the victims as well as bring awareness to causes we may be ignorant about. This raises the question, if just one person acts, will we act along with them or ignore it because the problem is being fixed by someone else?

Let us think on these things.

 “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” [New York Journal-American, April 5, 1963]
         -          Abraham Joshua Heschel

1 comment:

  1. Very well put. I think I'll have to think about this and put some meditation in before I can say anything other than this is a very thought provoking piece.