These days, "compassion" is a popular buzzword used by spiritual leaders and politicians alike. Many (if not most) people would describe themselves as being compassionate, but what exactly does this mean? My Websters Dictionary defines compassion as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause." (Sympathy is likewise defined as "agreement in feeling."). These are not trivial sentiments, as they come with major implications for those of us who want to live authentic lives.
Compassion and self-interest have strong links. If I "feel your pain," then my concept of self-interest has expanded to include your well-being. This type of compassion is common among family members. But self-interest can also limit compassion. The following two exercises will allow you to see where your own limits are drawn.
You and your family or loved ones have embarked on a long journey by private boat. The boat is not luxurious, but is spacious enough to accommodate you comfortably. You have an abundance of food, and the days pass pleasantly enough. One morning, you see a sinking ship. The desperate passengers have no lifeboats, and they grasp at floating debris as they struggle to stay alive. The circumstances are such that there is little chance of anyone else coming to their rescue, so you are almost certain they will die without your help. You have to decide what to do. Which alternative would you choose?
Alternative 1: Do All You Can
You do all you can to help these people. This would entail loading your boat with as many people as it could carry. Your spacious living quarters would be fully utilized, and your food supply would stretch to cover everyones requirements. What was previously a pleasure cruise for you and your family would be less comfortable, but the unnecessary suffering and death of many people would be prevented.
Alternative 2: Do Something
You estimate how many additional people your boat could carry while still providing a "reasonable" level of comfort to you and your family. Its a long journey, after all, and your extra food and supplies could be saved to provide some measure of "security" for your family. You feel that there is only so much that one person can be expected to do, and rescuing a few of these people would be doing your share. The others whom you choose not to help (even though you could help them) will unfortunately suffer and die, but you assure yourself that you did more than your share.
Alternative 3: Do Nothing
You continue on your journey while letting those people tend to themselves. Their situation is unfortunate, but their presence on that sinking ship is the result of some poor decisions that were beyond your control. You have your own family to worry about, and you have a right to a comfortable journey since you "earned it."
Key to Exercise 1:
The journey = your life
The shipwrecked = the tens of thousands of people who die every day from starvation and other easily preventable afflictions
Doing all you can = doing all you can
Doing nothing = doing nothing
You hear that someone you care about is in big trouble. She is in a remote area of a faraway country, and in desperate need of help. She is ill, and stranded without adequate food or medical care. Somehow word got out about her situation, and there are certain things you could do now to help her. Would you do what you could to help her, or not? Answer this question for each of the following people, hypothetically placing them in the role of the person in trouble, to see where you would draw the line:
Your best friend
Your second-best friend
Your buddies from work
Acquaintances from your social circle
Your next-door neighbor
Your other close neighbors
Someone you dont really know from further down the street
Someone you dont know from the same town
Someone from the same state
Someone from the same country
Someone from another country where they look like you
Someone from another country where they dont look like you
If you said that you would do what you could to help all of these people, then you are hereby informed that at this very moment there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in the world who are ill and stranded without adequate food or medical care. There are things you can do now to help them. If you would not do what you could to help all of these people, then you probably now have a better idea of the current limits of your compassion, which may or may not be in alignment with the beliefs you think you espouse.
Steve Leppold lives near Seattle.