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What Does Compassion Look Like During a World Crisis?

It was automatic for those whose lifestyle and beliefs guided them.

Compassionate people are rooted in relationships. They put their hearts into their minds—heartmindedness—a key value in societies around the world. There is no separation. They think relationally, with feelings. But they also know how to act. They feel connected to all of humanity, and they feel capable of acting for humanity.

Psychological studies of moral exemplars, those who have dedicated themselves to others over the long term exhibit at the same time higher affiliation with others (communion and compassion) and higher self-efficacy or agency (Walker & Frimer, 2008). Connection and competence. This is illustrated well by Monroe’s (2001) study of rescuers and non-rescuers of Jews and others under threat of Nazi deportation. Both groups admitted: “What else could I do?" But from high/low display of communion and of agency:

Rescuers: “What else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.”

Non-Rescuers: “What could I do? I was one person alone against the Nazis.”

With a lifetime of practice, “A wise (or virtuous) person is one who knows what is good and spontaneously does it” (Varela, 1999, p. 4). In this way, as ancient philosophers knew (Aristotle, Mencius), character is a set of skills or capacities or ethical know-how that can be cultivated to high levels of expertise (Narvaez, 2006). It is shaped by particular experiences—by a nurturing family life (with secure attachment; Oliner & Oliner 1988), mentoring by wise elders, and self-authorship toward virtuous activities and attitudes.

Two compassionate moral exemplars were residents of Le Chambon, a French village that hid and saved 3,500-5,000 Jews, mostly children, during the Vichy regime after the Nazis defeated France. Madame Magda Trocmé and her husband, Pastor André Trocmé, were Protestant Huguenots living in a largely Roman Catholic region of France. They organized and led the efforts to protect Jews beginning in 1942 when Jews began to be deported. In interviews long after the war and her husband’s death, Madame Trocmé displayed a combination of connection and competence.

“Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, 'How did you make a decision?' There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!” Rittner & Myers, 1986, p. 102)

Magda Trocmé reflected on her actions years after the war:

“When people read this story, I want them to know that I tried to open my door. I tried to tell people, ‘Come in, come in.’ In the end I would like to say to people, ‘Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself.’ I would not say more.” (Rittner & Myers, 1986, p. 107).

In the last year of his life, in 1971, André Trocmé was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Magda Trocmé was recognized with the same honor in 1984.

Weapons of the Spirit is a film directed by Pierre Sauvage, a Jewish man who was born and hidden in Le Chambon during the war. He documents his return to the village as an adult to interview the townspeople to question their motives. He interviewed Magda Trocme as well as their daughter, Nelly, who was a colleague of mine when I was a middle school teacher.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, this year is April 20-21, 2020, when the millions of victims will be remembered and also the compassion of rescuers.

Sometimes we need to hear about exemplars. They teach us that we can learn greater empathy and generosity towards others, that we can practice taking action for others in small ways so that when bigger challenges arise and we face the great needs of others, we automatically act with compassion.

Teaser photo credit: Deutsche Fotothek‎/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE


Monroe, Kristen Renwick. 2001. “Morality and a Sense of Self: The Importance of Identity and Categorization for Moral Action.” American Journal of Political Science 45.3:491–507.

Narvaez, D. (2006). Integrative ethical education. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of Moral Development (pp. 703-733). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Oliner, S. P., & Oliner, P. M. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.

Rittner, Carol and Myers, Sondra (1986). The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. New York: New York University Press. Accessed at:…

Varela, F. (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

Walker, L. J., & Frimer, J. A. (2009). Moral Personality Exemplified. In D. Narvaez & D. K. Lapsley, (Eds.) Personality, identity, and character: Explorations in moral psychology (pp. 232-255). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.