The Latin origin of the word compassion literally means co-suffering. When we see Syrians running in terror on our TV screens, our hearts run with them. When we see homeless folk selling magazines, our hopes stand with them. That’s compassion. As a society we have compassion for these people but is it enough?
Is it enough?
Society shows compassion for the refugees and the homeless magazine sellers, but what about the others? What about those Syrians and Iraqis that we don’t see? Those faceless souls being tortured in The Islamic State hidden away from the media gaze and excluded from public chatter. And how about those homeless people who don’t sell magazines? You know the ones, slumped in shop doorways looking downcast, the ones we like to call beggars. Where is the compassion for them? What about the people in life who don’t fight for themselves? Either because they can’t or won’t. Are they somehow less worthy of compassion?
I see the battle for compassion as one of the titanic duals of modern times fought in many arenas. As a species we have evolved greater compassion now than at any time in our recorded history. And yet conversely we have also developed a ruthless approach to life that for the first time, threatens the very notion of compassion itself. If somebody makes an innocent mistake through oversight or incompetence, we want them fired instead of asking how we can help them improve. We stigmatize the depressed. If somebody won’t work because they can’t find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, we say let them starve instead of let’s help them even more. Logically speaking though, since when did taking something from someone who has so little ever act as a good motivator? Surely a forward-thinking compassionate society would be asking are we doing enough? Can we pay more? Can we do more for them? Is it enough?
Ruthless business leaders, politicians and many others like to invoke Charles Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ explanation of biological evolution as a mantra for life. This can be used to defend the gross accumulation of wealth at the expense of everybody else including the vulnerable. However, it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the great man himself. Physical health aside, when used metaphorically, some people use the term “survival of the fittest” to talk about those most competent or those most financially successful or those with some form of power. The funny thing is though, those who believe the strong defeating the weak is some kind of natural happening to be encouraged can never call themselves Darwinian.
In “The Descent of Man, And Selection in Relation to Sex,” Darwin wrote “the highest moral achievement is concern for the welfare of all living beings, humans and nonhuman.” Furthermore, consider this which he wrote specifically about compassion:
“In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it would have been increased through natural selection, for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best.”
When I talk about compassion, I’m not even saying we should give more money or time — I guess all I’m saying is let’s be less judgmental. At my secondary school, a lot of my fellow pupils were vicious individuals, in some cases psychotic. However there were also some who weren’t so bad. Whenever I hear of another of the not-so-bads making the news for having turned to a life of drugs or petty crime, I try to think of them not as the hardened users or criminals they have become, but more rather as the children they once were.
The homeless (both sellers and doorway dwellers), Syrians and Iraqis (both refugees and those left behind), the unemployed, the mentally ill (both psychologically and psychiatric), the incompetent and the rest are not criminals. They are people. If we want to be the fittest, we need to be less judgmental. We need to be more compassionate. Compassion is a virtue of the giants, spread it and ye shall walk among them.
This article was first published in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/