by Jay Litvin
Pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion. Each is received at various times by one in distress. They are the responses engendered by our misfortunes from those we encounter. And each feels different when received. Each has a different effect on those who are suffering in the midst of psychic or physical crisis.
Of the four, compassion has a unique quality, a quality so different from the rest that it connotes a certain spiritual as well as emotional characteristic. Perhaps for this reason it is often cited in spiritual/religious texts as a virtue to be sought and developed.
The recipient of compassion feels its superiority immediately. Unlike pity, it has no condescension. Unlike empathy, it does not require a past or present similar experience on the part of the giver. And while sympathy is a wonderful virtue, it connotes less spontaneity and variety than compassion; one would not normally associate laughter or frivolity with sympathy, for example. And there is also a certain distance or separation inherent in sympathy, one sympathizes with the other. A very wonderful quality, still, sympathy stands at a different level than compassion.
While sympathy is a tender response to misfortune or difficulty, compassion is a way of life.
The dictionary offers the following root for compassion: Com (with) - pati (to suffer), to suffer with.
But there is another definition, one that does not limit compassion as a response to suffering, but rather to life itself, making it a quality that one would live with in every situation, with every person, rather than only with one who is in distress.
Com-passion: Com (with) - passion (strong feeling, enthusiasm); to be with another in strong feeling and with enthusiasm.
Compassion, then, does not require sadness, sorrow or even the desire to help, though it could include all these things. It simply means being fully present with someone no matter the circumstances of his or her life. Compassion suspends judgment and takes each circumstance equally -- each as a moment of life to be lived in its fullness. It . All possible emotions and feelings and behaviors of which we are capable are inherent in every moment, in every circumstance.
And so, compassion comes with no preconceptions. It has no attitudes. It has no special face or tone of voice. It is not bound by rules of behavior, decorum, expectations, though it may be guided by all of these things.
Compassion is prepared to meet others wherever they are, recognizing that the circumstance or challenge they now face is as much a part of their life as any other part of their life. Compassion can laugh or cry, joke or commiserate, be curious and inquisitive, chatty or silent. Compassion is not afraid to be fully present, hopeful, or lighthearted. Compassion does not turn away. It is never afraid to see beauty or find humor or share a fractured heart.
Compassion contains no pity because it does not judge one circumstance of life as better as or worse than the next. For it comes from a place in which all things are from G-d's hand, presented to us to be lived to its completion.
Compassion is not constricted by "rules" because it recognizes the uniqueness of each instant and each person. As compassion opens the door to visit the sick, it has no idea what lies ahead and so is prepared for spontaneity, for the unexpected -- whether from the patient or from itself.
Compassion creates its own result. As it interacts with the other, a new thing happens, because compassion is prepared to yield to whatever happens next, always with the other in mind.
Compassion is a spiritual quality often written about, rarely found incarnate. Because to have compassion means to have full acceptance of each circumstance in life. And this is very difficult to achieve. Thus, those who have compassion are usually those who have a great deal of varied experience and self exploration in their own lives. They have suffered, they have struggled with their own inner demons, they have met and known such a wide variety of people and touched the humanity in each of them in so many different situations that they can no longer judge and reject, neither person nor circumstance. They have come to realize that life offers what it offers and that each of us is all of us. Their self exploration has revealed the worst of their demons, so that when they see the demon in the other they can say hello.
And that is what compassion does: it simply says hello, with kindness and grace. And because of this compassion is never a burden to whom it is directed. Compassion is always welcome. It relieves the sick or bereaved from the need to care for the visitor. It relieves the one who is burdened from the added burden of being a source of burden to the other. For compassion comes simply to say hello, to be a companion in whatever circumstance presents itself. Compassion has come to simply listen or laugh, to accompany whatever is taking place without expectation or the need to make things better. Because compassion believes that things are as they are meant to be. And it believes that all circumstance can be shared. Thus, compassion, when it enters, usually banishes loneliness, and if not, it accompanies the lonely in their solitude.
Compassion can sit with the dying in silence, or with one giving birth, marveling equally in the miracle taking place. Compassion can join in suffering, accepting pain as a part of life. Compassion can jump into action, if action is called for and desired. Compassion can give to the poor or help heal the sick, without condescension or judgment or lack of respect.
And if these qualities of compassion seem Divine, it is because they are. And the only hope of ever calling this quality one's own is to remember that it is in the image of the Divine that we are created.
And if ever you are fortunate enough to be in the presence of compassion, you will barely notice it, so natural does it seem -- as natural as G-d's hidden presence, noticeable only if you look.
Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.