Compassionate: It's a Verb

Redefining how we think of compassion.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The virtue of compassion is crucial for any community of people. A family, a company, a team, a religious group–any human community–needs this virtue to be present among its members. We need one another to flourish and when one suffers, others must come alongside and offer comfort, encouragement, and compassion.

Compassion is also a virtue that we can show ourselves. I may be too self-critical and taking a compassionate attitude towards myself may be just what is needed.

Many bemoan the lack of compassion in our world. What prevents us from showing compassion not only to strangers but to those we are close to and to whom we are deeply committed? Bishop Joseph Butler, an 18th-century British pastor, theologian, and philosopher, offers us a crucial insight:

“But since in many cases, it is very much in our power to alleviate the miseries of each other… and men, for the most part, are so engaged in the business and pleasures of the world, as to overlook and turn away from objects of misery; which are plainly considered as interruptions to them in their way, as intruders upon their business, their gaiety and mirth; compassion is an advocate within us in their behalf; to gain the unhappy admittance and access, to make their case attended to.”

We are too self-centered and compassion turns our focus outwards to others. Perhaps we are just too distracted from those suffering in our midst, by technology, our own concerns, the latest social media battle, or the daily news. Fortunately, this is in our control. We can choose to attend to the suffering of others, and do whatever is in our power to alleviate it.

Along these lines, Butler talks about the need to compassionate the suffering of others. He uses the term as a verb. This underscores the fact that compassion is not a mere feeling but at its best, it is an action. So if I am to be compassionate, I must compassionate the suffering of others. I must enter into that suffering, suffer alongside them, bearing the burden as much as is possible. Rather than drawing away from those in pain—those who are suffering—compassion compels us to enter into that suffering and pain for the good of the other.