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Compassion

Too much respect for suffering discourages compassion. It is weak to say, "I can't imagine"; it is foolish to say, "You can't imagine"—for if I cannot imagine, then I have no reason to care, no basis for compassion; and if you cannot imagine, then my suffering is redoubled, because I am alone in it.

Suffering is not holiness; to have suffered is not enlightenment. To have suffered is to be trapped in the moment of suffering, for there is no escape from memory, and ever after all joy has some quality of Dostoyevsky's victim of torture by hope—let loose only until the moment he begins to believe he may be free, then thrown back into his cell. Wisdom sounds cheap except when bought with suffering; but there is no new wisdom, and if you listen you will hear that the wisdom taught by suffering sounds no different than the wisdom written in books. Wisdom for suffering is a real exchange, but no bargain. By trying to probe wounds for wisdom, we only keep them open. The wisdom of the wound is the warning of the wound: see what can happen? Don't let this happen to you. Don't let this happen again. Suffering does not teach; suffering does not ennoble; for what selves are made of does not grow back.

There can be no compassion without imagination; but I cannot say that there can be no virtue without compassion. Selfishness can be made the basis of any virtue, where society is properly arranged to treat us as we treat others. Society, however, is not always properly arranged. The most startling realization of adulthood—the one that really ends childhood—is how much freedom we have to do evil—how much we can get away with.

This descent is familiar. It is so easy to be cruel, and people just take it. It is so easy to break the rules, and people don't complain. It is so easy to twist the rules for your side, and people don't cry out. How disgusting the weak are—how unworthy of life—so pathetic that they won't stand up for themselves: you have the right to use them as you please. How little trust it takes before you can abuse it and keep it. How little seeming to respect the rules before you can break them. And if no one will stop you—then they deserve it.

Conscience is just habit. The pangs of conscience are easier to ignore than a nicotine craving. It is compassion which is the basis our moral restraint. (Those who would say that we have no moral restraint are simply those without the imagination to see how much worse things could be.) And the basis for compassion is imagination. By imagination, I do not mean "I will be good to this person, because I may be in that situation someday"; I mean, "I will be good to this person, because I might have been in that situation." Few people are able, unassisted by some personification, to see how little their lives have been guided by their own choices: and if religion did no other good, this aid alone might be enough to justify it.

Minor sufferings—annoyances, irritations, frustrations—are unique and self-contained; they come, (sometimes) they go, and we are not remade by them. But major sufferings—tragedies, horrors, defeats—are, in a way, alike; within one life, each recalls and involves all the others. It is not mockery for you to use the worst thing that has happened to you as the basis for understanding something much worse that has happened to someone else. There are only so many slots in the human mind. A person who has only narrowly overcome the temptation of suicide over some idle-youth tragedy has not found their limit on some absolute scale of mettle, to be broken by their first real tragedy; rather, that person has proved the strength not to be broken by the worst; though what the worst really is, they must yet learn.

Compassion is easy to mock. There is even something satisfying in seeing it rebuked. An exchange like this could appear in a comedy:

"My girlfriend left me, I don't know how I can go on."

"Don't whine at me. My wife died in a car crash."

Imagine the reaction shot.

But this is inhumane. There is always some third whose sufferings could shut them both up. We fragile and unassured creatures only worsen our state when we try to compare and rate the various ways in which our worlds fall apart. What is broken is broken; what is in pieces is in pieces; and if one person's world has only broken in half, and another's has been ground to powder, they are both still naked to the same wind.