The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Too much respect for suffering discourages compassion. It is weak to say, “I can’t imagine”; it is perverse to say, “You can’t imagine.” If I cannot imagine your suffering, then I have no reason to care, no basis for compassion; and if you cannot imagine my suffering, then my suffering is worse, 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 something in common with the joy of the victim in the contes cruels – the prisoner 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 all wisdom is old 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 only 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; suffering only makes us less. What we are made of does not grow back.

Compassion is not everything. Without imagination there can be no compassion; but without compassion there can still be virtue. Selfishness can be made the basis of virtue, while 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, no matter how early it comes – is the realization of how much freedom we have to do evil – how much we can get away with.

The 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 into weapons 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 of our moral restraint. (Do we have moral restraint? Those who would say we have none lack the imagination to see how much worse things could be.) And the basis for compassion is imagination.

By imagination as the basis of compassion, 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 this person.” Few of us are able, unassisted by some personification, to see how little our lives have been guided by own choices. If religion did no other good, this service alone might be enough to justify it - that it helps you remember that you are where you are, not because you chose it, not because you earned it, but because something free and unaccountable – God or Nature – placed you there, and might have placed you somewhere else.

Compassion requires imagination. But how can you imagine something much worse than anything that has happened to you? Our minor sufferings – annoyances, irritations, frustrations – are unique and self-contained; they come, (sometimes) they go, and we are not remade by them. But our terrible sufferings – our losses, our regrets, our defeats – they are all, in a way, alike; within one life, each one 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. That person has shown the strength not to be broken by the worst – though what the worst really is, they have yet to 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 rank 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, still they are both naked to the same wind.