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Compassion in word and practice

8/7/2013

Compassion.

How long has it been since you heard that word or saw it in print? Probably so long ago you have no memory of the circumstance and context in which it was used. Likely in a sermon, if you are a church-goer.

Compassion is one of a number of lofty terms, such as wisdom, humility, magnanimity, et al., that once meaningfully familiar, have now become semantic relics, buried in dictionaries and thesauruses and uttered mostly on ceremonial occasions.

Next to love itself, of which it is a manifest facet, compassion is the primary spiritual virtue, superseding all others. It is central to all of the world's major religions (especially Buddhism) and humanist ethics. In both religious and secular usage, it is usually thought of as pity, sympathy, kindness, condolence, etc. Webster defines compassion as "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

In their incisive book, "Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family and Changes for a Viable Future," authors Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein cite an "empathy shortfall" in American society -- "empathy" being a somewhat more down-to-earth word for the capacity of imagining what it is like to "walk in someone else's shoes."

Ehrlich and Ornstein attribute this deficiency of empathy to lack of knowledge of "them," those who are outside of our immediate circle of family and friends but who (including every individual on earth) are related to us genetically, socially and enviornmentally.

The causes of the empathy shortfall are complex and beyond the scope of the present discussion. Suffice it to say, we live in a busy, busy, distracting, materialist-oriented culture, and are so preoccupied with physical security and comfort (many of us working several jobs) that we have little or no time and energy for contemplating the dire conditions of people we have never met; the cliche "out of sight, out of mind" unfortunately applies.

Nonetheless, all of us can practice ongoing empathy, if only with people we do know (even if we are not especially fond of them), and with passing strangers. Simple consideration of another's situation and feelings is basic "Compassion 101," which must be learned as a prerequisite to authentic, extended concern for humanity at large.

Maintaining respectful patience with our fellow men and women, for example, in everyday circumstances is a basic measure of our capacity for empathy and, of course, is easier said than done.

As Salina Journal columnist -- Jo Reed -- recently pointed out, increasing lack of civility is a lamentable feature of our modern society. Rudeness and bad manners do indeed seem to be on the rise (though out-of-area visitors describe Salinans as generally more courteous than folk in other locales they have been to). If that is true on the national scale, it would indicate a corresponding "empathy shortfall."

The late Nobel Prize-winning author Norman Mailer once commented in an interview that sincere politeness is a way that many express their love for others. That is an insightful observation.

Small acts of courtesy and kindness, public or private, may seem to be minor virtues in the larger picture of compassion, but totalled over a lifetime they are the full equivalent of it. A helping hand or soothing words are "small" gestures that carry potentially big healing powers for psychic (as well as physical) wounds wrought by mere thoughtlessness.

The lives of all of us are undoubtedly blessed with passing acts of consideration and compassion that we may not fully appreciate at the time, but which in fact sustain our common humanity and community.

Can you recall a recent or past instance when you were treated with thoughtfulness by another at a time when you needed it, perhaps only later recognizing it as a true gesture of compassion? If so, we invite you to share it with us at www.spiritualresourcecenter.com.

Genuine compassion is born of the realization of the spiritual truth that our perceived separation from one another is an illusion.

Thus, before we can exercise it authentically with others, we must have already done so with ourselves, through self-understanding, self-forgiveness and self-compassion.

Each of us plays an abiding part in the noble work-in-progress that is humankind.

* The Spiritual Resource Center in Salina is dedicated to the advancement of tolerance, peace and compassion in the world.

A. Wayne Senzee, formerly of Hays, is a published author now residing in Salina.

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