Someone recently forwarded me an article from a parenting magazine that was all about raising a compassionate child. It began with a little girl finding an ancient teddy and kissing its eye sockets to comfort it for the loss of the eyes. The author thinks children have an inborn capacity for compassion, but admits that “the tricky part is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, including limited impulse control... and their belief that their needs absolutely must come first.” In my opinion, George W. Bush shows the same profile. And so do many others, both voters and politicians.
But “my opinion” aside, what about compassion as the driving force of ethics? Can compassion (feeling sorry for someone or something) be a force for salvation? Certainly it features big in many interpretations of the New Testament, which figure Jesus as a protector of little lambs and cherubic children. Not much on the judgment side. And certainly it is a major component of Blackfeet prayer, which petitions the Force to have pity on we small humans. Presumably compassion is what is behind the opposition to abortion as well as the support for children’s health insurance or the Shriners. The Court of National Opinion can ease its criticism of sleazy politicians and greedy CEO’s or even outrageous media figures IF they will give money to charity. Bush hopes our “compassion” for the victims of Saddam Hussein will excuse his unauthorized war.
Compassion, suggests the Wikipedia, compassion -- as opposed to conferring benefit, which is altruism -- “is a sense of shared suffering”. I’d say that separated Abraham Lincoln from Bush right there. The latter doesn’t share much of anything.
But here’s another rather surprising example. The recent onslaught of blizzards has trapped and is starving and freezing thousands of cattle on the open range and in feed lots all across the Colorado east slope of the Rockies. When the governor and other officials asked PETA and the Humane Society of the United States for help with money to drop hay, the answer they got was cold indeed. “Oh, you’re just going to kill and eat those animals anyway. You’re going to make the profit from them, so you can feed them.” In other words, “we don’t share the suffering of livestock -- only that of cute little pets so that people will write checks to us.” Which explains why it’s so hard to get these people interested in ag reform: chickens in tiny cages, hogs on concrete, brutal slaughter methods, etc.
An even more outrageous document has been circulating about how Colorado’s catastrophic blizzards have been handled so well and so without massive help from the Feds, which brings the writer to conclude that Coloradans are much better -- certainly whiter and cleaner -- than the people of New Orleans, whose catastrophe was a poison-filled, corruption-riddled black mess.
There is a strong tendency to believe that bad people don’t suffer, “different” people like immigrants or Indians don’t suffer, and so on. If they do, we can’t imagine it and we figure they suffer because they made bad choices, unlike ours -- in short, they deserve it. Turning on them and pounding them farther into the ground is considered righteous -- not a choice. (This is an Avonlea sort of attitude, no doubt about it. At least if you ask Rachel Lynde, who is noted for being compassionate.)
Also, we have a strong preference for expressing compassion one-on-one so as to receive grateful thanks and admiration. To simply fund a decent program for child protection is not very rewarding. We want the horrific case, hopefully with video, so we can feel so good when it’s resolved. Movie stars, who live on a plane far above ours in financial terms, love to get involved in African waves of mass genocide, in hopes they won’t be struck down by destiny for having made out so well. (Don’t mistake me -- I think this is positive in the long run, educating celebrities not least.)
Everyone loves Indians so long as they’re the victims of massacre. Let them begin to make decent wages and control their own lives and the fans are outtahere. Same with women. Everyone will reach out a hand to help a little woman, unless she’s uppity. Watch out, Nancy Pelosi! (AN ASIDE: It was risky behavior for her to ask all the kiddies to come up and feel her gavel. Mommy behavior. It won’t be criticized as much as the Montana legislator who asked the Indian chair if his gavel was his war club. Why can’t a gavel simply be a gavel? And dignified. What is so threatening about this symbol of authority-keeping-order? Don’t answer that.)
I once housesat for a couple who liked to grow plants, but could not “bear” to prune them. Maybe they had the idea that it was not compassionate to discipline plants. Anyway, they were all straggling around turning yellow because they no longer fit their pots and didn’t get enough light. Some people treat kids that way -- thinking it’s compassionate. The author of this parenting piece claimed she had seen little kids spit in the faces of their parents, who merely laughed. She thought that was going too far. I’m glad there are limits SOMEWHERE.
Wikipedia also has an entry for “Idiot Compassion,” describing the thought of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ken Wilbur, and others. To quote, “It refers to the tendency of spiritual practitioners (particularly Buddhists) to give people what they WANT as opposed to what they NEED, all in the name of being nice and compassionate.” So my doctor might have been resisting “idiot compassion,” which I rather expected and for which she has rather a reputation, in an effort to snap me out of complacency and put me on guard -- as a person MUST be with a chronic disease. The Wikipedia says that “idiot compassion” is a problem for Buddhists because REAL compassion is such a strong virtue for them. It’s so easy to slip over. I would say that the demand for “idiot compassion” has a very bad effect on Protestant ministers who serve at the pleasure of their flocks. (“Criticize US, buddy, and you’re OUTTAHERE!”)
Perhaps at the root of all this is our modern denial of suffering -- we are an anesthetized people -- and our demand that science or at least technology just fix it all. In the meantime, more and more people sink into poverty in our own country, genocide sweeps whole continents, and we have started a war that will make generations suffer deeply on both sides.
Remember the teddy bear in the beginning? He was the beloved toy of the little girl’s mother, who is the writer of the article. So how did he lose his eyes in the first place?