Some Words on the Value of Compassion

Kwan Yin, Chan Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

“…I have three treasures that I cherish and hold fast.
The first is compassion,
the second is simplicity,
the third is daring not to be first
among all things under heaven.

Because of compassion I am able to be courageous.
Because of simplicity I am able to be generous.
Because of daring not to be first
I am able to lead…”

-From the Tao Te Ching, Ch. 67

Compassion seems like such a little thing, so minor that we hardly think about it, even when we’re being compassionate. But it is important, perhaps the most important quality we can have as human beings, subtle and common as it seems. Maybe I have a Pollyanna complex, but I think that if you live compassionately — consistently and indiscriminately — you can change the world around you. Which is why I’m glad that Karen Armstrong and the Fetzer Institute have organized the rapidly growing movement Charter for Compassion, which promotes the spread of compassion, regardless of one’s cultural and religious values or social and economic status. The Charter’s call to action states:

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.

People need compassion; we crave it. I’m convinced that the world’s bitterness, pessimism, and violence come not only from selfishness, but from feeling that everyone else is selfish as well, that they’re alone or nearly alone in a threatening world. How can you change their minds? By showing them consistently that that’s not the way the world has to be. It’s true that some people won’t latch on; they won’t change and they might even try to take advantage of people who are kind to them. Still, there are others who are open to being shown that, as the Charter states, “Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.” The presence of those in our world who are cynical and immovable, for whatever reason (and there are always reasons), doesn’t justify giving up on the whole of humanity. Live and let live, yes, but do so compassionately.

“To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of…even those regarded as enemies” is the kernel of the movement, I think. As Christ said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? … And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32-33). The mark of a truly compassionate person is one who loves those who seem difficult to love and does good to those who may not reciprocate. It’s hard to do that, I know; I struggle with it every day. But I’m making a concentrated, daily effort to recognize those “enemies” of mine and try to understand them, to perceive the vulnerabilities that have caused them to become difficult for me to love, and if that’s not possible for whatever reason, to at least acknowledge that they have those vulnerabilities.

Who are your enemies? For a moment, forget what they stand for or what they’ve done to you, and try to discover their humanity — their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, their need for love and understanding. Learning to forgive and love one’s enemies not only allows you to interact with them in a positive way; it improves your health and your relationships with those you love because, in refusing to expend so much energy on animosity, you become a happier, more serene person.

I highly recommend checking out The Charter for Compassion (linked above) and the community that’s grown from it. I’m not really the heartwarming, touchy-feely type, but I do think this is important. It’s the only way for us to grow as human beings.

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