Feeling Compassion is Not Enough

All languages I know (Spanish, French, Italian, German, English, even Sanskrit) and some I don’t (Greek and Latin) have three positive pro-social words: empathy, sympathy, and compassion. But lovely as these words are, as well as the feelings they point to, nothing in the words themselves indicates that they imply direct action. In French, sympathy has been watered down to an adjective for somebody we like: “Il est sympathique.” A nice guy. Same in Spanish: “Es un hombre muy simpático, ” and in Italian also: “He’s a very pleasant man.” Sympathisch in German just means he is likeable. The German for compassion is a lovely word: Mitleid, literally, suffering with someone. But the word carries no connotation of action, any more than it does in English (consider, too, that the word existed in 1939). Hearing Bill Clinton say, “I feel your pain” is great, but it does not mean he is going to do a damned thing about that pain. You can empathize, that is, understand what the other person is feeling, and you can sympathize, meaning you feel bad about it, and you can even feel compassion, that is, you feel it almost as if it were happening to you. But none of this implies you ail actually take up action on his or her behalf. We don’t have a word in our language to suggest feeling coupled with action. Many of my friends have pointed to the Sanskrit word ahimsā, “doing no harm.” Yeah, it’s great, (and an improvement over our words, I agree) but you can do no harm without necessarily doing something good! To some extent we are all bystanders at other people’s tragedies. Even when we are far from indifferent. Why this should be I don’t really know or understand. Something to do with our species?

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608196159/ or the eBook http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608199914/
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9 Responses to Feeling Compassion is Not Enough

  1. Karen Coyne says:

    This is something I think about a great deal. My non-profit is called “The Compassion in ACTION Club” for a reason. Most people would consider themselves compassionate, but not many people are willing to act when they see evidence of abuse toward a sentient being. I don’t think there’s a lack of willingness to act, necessarily. I think there’s a lack of organization to make the action feel meaningful at times. We all get so busy with our lives, and then when we have time to act, perhaps other people around us are too busy and can’t help, and when they’re ready to act, we’re not. It would be nice to find some unifying approach. In doing so, animal rights activists could be so much more powerful and efficient, in my opinion.

    • I think you are right. BUT I still wonder about us, not as individuals, but as a species. Something, I believe, happened to move us closer to indifference than compassionate action. So I am always delighted when I read of groups like yours!

      • Karen Coyne says:

        Thank you, but… I wish I can say The CIA Club has fulfilled its mission. Although I’m happy with many successes over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my personal activism will be better served elsewhere, so I’m sorry to report that my organization is becoming extinct. But I’m not sure I see humans now being any more indifferent than in the past. It seems like any time any great movement took place, it always started as a minority that had to move the indifferent masses to the other side (the masses just do whatever the majority is doing, without necessarily putting much thought into it). I think our biggest challenge is that there’s money to be made in the killing of animals and basically no money in activism against exploitation of animals, so activists are doing what they can, but they also simply have to spend the majority of their time making a living. I’ve never been to New Zealand, so I don’t know how different things may be there.

    • There is a sanskrit word, developed by Mahatma Ghandi during the Independence movement in the 1950s, that encompasses action based on truth: Satyagraha, Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह satyāgraha), loosely translated as “insistence on truth”- satya (truth); agraha (insistence) “soul force” or “truth force”.

      It doesn’t specify that such truthforce, or insistence on truth is based on empathy, compasssion, or sympathy, but I find that it is somehow implied. The idea of insisting or acting upon known truth points to a noble source such as these three emotional states.

      A group I am part of, The Organisation for Global Nonviolent Action was formed upon the foundation of such inspirational ideas as satyagraha as it does give one hope that action will follow from feeling – something that at least does not feel too common when trying to organise events yourself!

      • Karen Coyne says:

        Right! We’ve probably all felt very alone while trying to organize an event. I know when I’m on Facebook, though, and I see all the people posting comments and attending events to help animals, that people are working hard for the animals every single day. Fortunately, many famous people are becoming vegan, so it’s spreading faster and faster. It seems like for the first 15 years I was vegan, it was slow-going, but in the last five years or so it feels like it’s spreading much faster.

  2. John Salmond says:

    At one level, all such questions come back to our evolutionary history: there are lots of things (such as our own eventual deaths) which we have learnt to ignore just because letting them fully into our awareness would hinder us doing the things we need to do to survive day-to-day.

    At another level, we humans spend our lives moving on from our evolutionary roots in every aspect of our lives.

    But we have to do so by making conscious choices; the start of that is some of us bringing issues forward for the rest of us to think about so we can learn to recognise our ingrained habits of mind for what they are, and maybe decide to try to change.

    Yet finally we have to face certain hard facts about how the world is — we are all separate beings, and while we strive to alleviate those harsh circumstances which befall others, the drawbridge has to be raised sometimes to secure our own well-being

    Incidentally, all such questions, since I read Jeffrey’s ‘The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving’, and looking further into the subject, make me think of the idea that companionship with dogs made a vital contribution to ‘humanising’ humans. I like to think we have in some manner gone on ahead (for good and ill), but that old debt still makes for a special link with our present-day dog companions.

  3. brendacheyne says:

    Interesting maybe it does has something to do with our species. Maybe, it has to touch our personal lives in some way before we act. I was raped and abused, my healing journey has lead me to become dedicated to ending rape and abuse on our Earth. On my journey I found Against Therapy and much reading to make sense of what has happened to me. I eventually opened my eyes and ears to animal torture and abuse I see this violance all connected.
    Thank you for your books Jeffery.

    Brenda Cheyne

  4. [We don’t have a word in our language to suggest feeling coupled with action.]

    How about “help”? You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t feel it.

  5. There’s also “kindness”, for example, which represents both the impulse and the action. But the problem is a false one, I’m afraid, like complaining that impact does not also mean damage or conception does not also mean birth. Language naturally breaks down action into more essential units. It is really not such a telling or damning thing if we have to say “I felt pity so I helped him”, describing the event in its two natural stages. Is there any language known to anyone here that does not do this?

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