Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



May 1, 2005

Sympathy, Compassion, Humility

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 09:45
lilyThe Idea: An exploration of what these three concepts mean, and what may and may not be capable of feeling for others.

Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata. – Give, Sympathize, Control. That is the message of the Three Thunders from the Upanishads, related in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. I’ve written recently about the first thunder — Datta — in my article on the Gift Economy, explaining the meaning of giving as generosity, not charity. And the third thunder — Damyata — refers to self-control, a part of my seven steps to dealing with any situation: Sense, Self-control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate.

It’s probably about time I wrote about the second thunder — Dayadhvam — sympathize.

In the modern Western world we make it hard for those of us who live in relative comfort and ease to sympathize with those who don’t. Our media self-censor, declining to expose us to those whose lives are destitute, full of suffering, and empty of hope, except on those rare occasions (like the recent tsunami) when that misery is visually spectacular. Most of the time, we don’t hear the stories of those who most deserve our sympathy because we don’t want to, because we cannot bear their reality.

We watch Hollywood productions with misery and suffering, but they are unreal, manufactured, always caused by clearly-identifiable individuals of pure evil who are inevitably vanquished, or redeemed, by the story’s end. The idea of suffering and misery that is endless, intractable, ubiquitous, meaningless, and caused largely by the very cultures, systems and technologies in which we believe so fiercely, is too much to ask us to examine, or even imagine. We really don’t want to witness what is happening now in Darfur.

Sympathy, compassion, humility: These are words in the credo of those who give their lives over to the care of others, saints who are driven by secular or religious idealism to sacrifice their own goals — security, happiness, comfort — to fight the endless fight against an invincible enemy. That enemy is not injustice or greed or corruption, but the ancient amoral adversaries disease, malnutrition, helplessness. Often these saints find this burden foisted upon them by circumstance — a loved one falls victim to a debilitating and terminal physical or mental illness, or they themselves become victims of atrocities, natural or manmade, against which they then struggle, often to the death. Even those who seek out this burden often claim it was a calling — it chose them rather than the other way around.

But what about the rest of us? How are we supposed to learn sympathy, compassion, humility, when we are taught, and teach ourselves, to avoid exposure to, and not to see the misfortune that gives rise to these sentiments? Is Robinson Jeffers right in saying that only when

the mind
Tortured of some interior tension has despaired of
happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further?

Is the search to learn sympathy, compassion and humility simply a form of self-punishment for those who have partaken so much of the Tree of Knowledge that they can no longer return to the comfort of ignorance and carelessness?

Sympathy is from the Latin meaning sharing feelings. Compassion is from the Latin meaning suffering with. But can we really ‘share feelings’ or ‘suffer with’ someone whose grief or suffering or misfortune we can only observe from a distance? Or at best, if we’ve been there ourselves before, can we simply remember, ruefully, a little of what it felt like, and if we have not, can we only feel grateful, and perhaps a little guilty, that such misfortune has eluded us, so far? Can we actually feel sympathy or compassion for the woman in Darfur whose husband has been tortured and slaughtered, whose male children have been burned alive, whose female children have been raped and kidnapped as spoils of war, whose village and farms have been burned to the ground? Can we actually feel sympathy or compassion for the man in Russia or China or Saudi Arabia who, simply for his beliefs or ethnic extraction has been imprisoned, tortured and starved every day of his adult life with no end or hope in sight, and for no conceivable purpose?

Having first-hand experience of excruciating pain in the past few days I cannot pretend that I ‘share the feelings’ or ‘suffer with’ others who I saw in the hospital in obvious pain and discomfort, or those that face such anguish, physical or mental, every day of their lives. I give money to charities (more than most) and to the homeless on the street, but it is not out of charity or guilt, nor is it out of sympathy or compassion, if I am honest with myself. What then do I feel for others in their varying times of misfortune?

Humility comes from the Latin word meaning ground, and hence literally means grounded. In this sense it means connected to, rather than detached from, the rest of life on Earth. I think we all feel, to some extent, this biophilia, this love and connection to all others — it is coded in our DNA, it is instinctive, it is our instruction from Gaia, the collective force that seeks forever to enhance the richness and diversity of the biota of the planet and to make us all responsive to and responsible for that and for each other. This I feel, and the more I learn and study and reconnect with my senses and my instincts the stronger I feel it. We humans have lost our groundedness, our love of all other life for its own sake, as we have retreated into our abstract and disconnected worlds, hiding from the terror of all we could once, and can no longer, imagine. It is this disconnection, not lack of sympathy or compassion, that allows man to subject others to, and to ignore the plight of others who fall victim to, suffering. It is a lost respect for life because, closeted away in our own minds, our artificial world, we no longer know what life is. That knowledge is instinctive, it is not learned.

I believe that for the most part women are more grounded, and hence more humble, in the true sense of the word, than men. Part of this is nurtured, I suspect, but part of it is inherent in the connection of their bodies to Earth and to the real world. They are, fortunately for our world, less able to escape completely into the abstract world of men.

So I think you can have your pretense of sympathy and compassion — these seem to me to be learned behaviours not much connected to reality. I will instead aspire to humility, not in its self-effacing sense but in its sense of groundedness and connection to and love for all the life on our planet. In your time of discomfort and misfortune I may not be able to say that I ‘share your feelings’ or that I ‘suffer with you’, but rather simply that I accept the reality of the moment in connection and in communion with you. That is the best that I can offer.

And perhaps this is what the second thunder meant. Not sympathy in shared feeling, but acceptance in communion and in love. We could do much worse than achieve this level of connection. It might stop us from inflicting so much horror and suffering on this world, if only we could.

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