Compassion is a Humanizing Virtue

Compassion is one of the most important of character traits, yet its an attribute that comes from learning, mostly in the school of hard knocks. People who have compassion reflect the face of God, because He Himself is compassionate to all.

Compassion is what we feel when we identify with the pain, and suffering of others.  It’s the  ability to emotionally put yourself in someone else’s skin and feel what they feel.  Its having empathy and sympathy for the suffering of others.  Its one of the most important of the middot, yet its an attribute that comes from learning through our own experiences instead of by reading.

It’s hard to feel  the pain of others, if you have felt no pain.  Unless you have felt it, you have no idea what other people go through.  This reminds me of the passage in “The Chosen,” by Chaim Potok, where Reb Saunders says,

One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, … by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . . ” Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.” (The Chosen, P.278ff).

People say I am a fairly compassionate person.  Being compassionate came at a high price.  I identify with the suffering of others because of the intensity of emotional pain I’ve been through. There is an emotional pain that is far worse than any physical pain, a pain almost unsurvivable.   I can imagine the pain of others and I hurt for them.  Given the choice, I would rather have  never had pain, but if you develop compassion after going through pain, it makes the painful experience somewhat redemptive.  Feeling for other people, helps them.  It aids in their healing and dealing with their own pain.

Not everyone who goes through painful experiences develop compassion. Some become bitter.  Some become self-centered.  How many times have you met someone embittered by their experiences and seem to take it out on everyone around them? They don’t give a damn about anyone else.

People with a propensity for compassion will feel for others and have mercy. They give a damn about the suffering of others.  What kind of person looks with indifference on the suffering of others?  People who have no heart and no soul.  That’s what the Nazi’s did.  Without compassion we turn into something frightening, capable of great evil, because we just don’t care that other’s suffer.  Having compassion makes us more “human,” or in other words, what we consider the best of humanity.  Without it, we aren’t very different from machines; cold and unfeeling, disconnected from the lives of others.

Why is it that some people become kind and compassionate when they have experienced pain and suffering, while others become bitter, cold and indifferent toward the suffering of others even though they have had their own painful experiences?  It is because compassion is ultimately a heart issue.  .If you take butter and put it in the sun, it melts.  If you take clay, and put it in the sun, it gets hard and dry.  Same sun.  Different substances.  If a person’s desire is to be compassionate, his response to pain will be to grow in compassion.  If their choice is to be angry or bitter, it will make them hard-hearted.  It’s not a genetic thing.  It’s a choice we make.  How do we respond to the pain life brings?  It will determine what kind of people we become.


8 thoughts on “Compassion is a Humanizing Virtue

  1. Rabbi… have written on a very important topic … and isn’t it strange that our faith in the Almighty does not shield us from these hurtful experiences…and it is true the more of these experiences we have had the better we can relate to (and have compassion for) a hurting person in and on this very day in which we live.

  2. People choose how to respond to pain. Some turn it into anger and attack everyone around them, simply causing more pain while failing to ease their own. Others do as you say and use the experience to understand how others feel who are also hurt. Their expressions of compassion also relieve their own hurts.

    My three-year old grandson is still struggling to understand that other people have feelings the same way he does. He doesn’t always realize that when he gets excited and hits or kicks while playing, that he can hurt me (or his Dad, Mom, and so on). He seems to “get it” more when we are playing with “Baby” (his favorite stuffed animal, a toy giraffe) and a rabbit (“Raddit” in three-year old speak) hand puppet, which we’ve had since my own kids were small. He knows how to hold them and hug them when he imagines they have an “owie” but he only feels compassion when he relates to his own “owies”.

    I feel sad and a little scared when I realize that even children have to feel pain before they can feel compassion.

  3. I most certainly don’t mean to brag, because that is a problem in itself. That being said, I can’t remember a time when I did not feel compassion for others in distress one way or another, and I don’t think most of it followed any suffering of my own, unless I have since repressed it, which I doubt.

    Aha, but feeling compassion and doing something about it are quite different. I was raised in a society that taught that men needed to be tough. It wasn’t acceptable to show compassion for anybody. Only sissies did that. It was more appropriate to make fun of a person in trouble, or even to worsen the trouble if possible, just for entertainment. It was a society that easily bred bullies. Example: A lady lived in our neighborhood, alone, who had had polio and could not walk. There was a snowstorm. Did we kids in the neighborhood have compassion for her and shovel the front walk? No sir, we rolled a big snowball in front of her door, then yelled, “fire.” I was filled with compassion for the lady, but peer pressure was more powerful. I did nothing, so in retrospect I think any compassion I thought I felt did not count.

    Today, we try to teach our children to have compassion under all sorts of circumstances. At the same time, we teach them they don’t have to accept any crap from anybody. It’s more like do unto others quick, before they do unto you, and in the event someone manages to do unto you first, revenge is just about mandatory. That also breeds bullies. Here we are, teaching our children two opposing principles, and we wonder why they are confused, maladjusted, and why the suicide rate is so high.

    Anyway, I think compassion is incomplete without action.


    • Compassion needs actions to put legs on it, but sometimes the action can just mean being there, and saying nothing, when someone is grieving. It can also mean not saying hurtful things when you know you have the opportunity, etc. I don’t see not taking crap from people as inconsistent with compassion because Showing compassion is for those who need it. I don’t need to show it to a bully, but to the one who is hurting. It’s kind of like what the Torah says about God, in Exodus 20:5-6, “for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Compassion is for the downtrodden, not the bullies. They get something else!

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