Radical Compassion

I remember discussing the etymology of the word “compassion” in a high school theology class; to hear Mrs. Swisher explain that compassion was not timid, not pitying, but rather the most selfless engagement of which humans are capable – to literally suffer with, empathy of the highest order.  Love is not only idealized but idealizing (and broad), while compassion is a narrowly defined challenge to accept the reality of human experience outside of oneself.

On this Valentine’s Day, I was grateful to encounter a great deal of compassion – or at least discussions of it – in my RSS feed.  Ta-Nehisi Coates kicked off my musings, as he so often does, by questioning our collective rationalizations for violence and oppression.  Kevin Drum looks at the national budget and sees compassion deprioritized; Coates’s look at the conservative refusal to interrogate the underlying structure of complicated social issues finds a similar absence.  Perhaps the most outright assault on compassion is highlighted by these two articles, detailing the dire need for legal aid services as well as the crusade by the right to dismantle those same programs.  Anyone who finds fraud or malicious intent behind every individual seeking redress for suffering has plainly refused to participate compassionately in the world; the needs and sufferings of the poor and working-class may not be cheap or convenient, but that does not make them any less real.

Suffering is also not less, nor easier to justify, because of whom it is heaped upon; in this story, an illegal immigrant, an identity which has – in the minds of many – erased any trace of humanity in this man.  (As an aside, this particular story struck me as an example of the deficiencies not only of America’s immigration policy, but also its health care system; as I am currently planning a lengthy trip to South America I am in the bizarre position of having to secure insurance coverage in the US in the event that I should have to return early from Argentina or Chile, nations where health care affordability is a non-issue.  It’s a bizarre and pointed rejoinder to those who believe that America’s health care delivery system is the best in the world.)

Those who display compassion are celebrated (or, inasmuch as those same people threaten existing power structures, vilified too); this story from the New Yorker demonstrates beautifully the gap between love – its purported theme – and compassion, the unbounded intertwining of love and courage that led a man to sacrifice his own life to ensure the safety of others.  For a more significant, head-on discussion of the meaning of compassion, today’s TEDTalk provides a wonderful call to recognize its value.

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