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Home » Inspiration » The Art of Living

What is Compassion?
by Soledad Traverso

I grew up in a developing country, and as a child I wondered why there were so many poor people begging for food in the streets. I don't recall any of the answers I got from adults, but I do remember the feelings that those experiences created within me. Today, every time I cross the Key Bridge in Washington D.C. and see homeless people asking for money, I hear the same voice within me asking exactly the same question.

Automatically I try to find some quarters in my pocket. It is like a reflex. And then I pause to reflect not on the money, but on my own feelings. Before I take any action, I want to understand what motivates me to act. It is interesting to have been going through this mental process for such a long time. I have established an ongoing dialogue with myself about what it really means to be compassionate.

There seem to be two conflicting sides in me arguing about the right way to deal with this situation. One side believes that my anxiety would be alleviated by giving some quarters, and then I could continue on my journey, feeling good about myself, convinced that I had contributed something to ease the suffering of the world. The other side of me knows that this would be too easy. The truth is that my life wouldn't be affected if I spared some quarters and, for sure, the homeless person wouldn't experience any dramatic change either. Actually, I think this approach is very harmful and misleading. It might make me oblivious to what I really could contribute to society so that, in the long run, homelessness would not exist. Furthermore, by giving away those quarters I might even be sustaining that person's situation; I might be making homelessness his or her profession.

But what is compassion? Some time ago, I read a definition that I found striking. It came from a book by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar. According to her, "compassion emphasizes the experience of suffering with those who suffer" and, because of this, "is far from according with a sentimental conception of life." She says that it "inflicts its knifelike pain only on those who, strong or not, brave or not, intelligent or not (such qualities are beside the point), have been granted the horrible gift of looking the world full in the face and seeing it as it is." Is this capacity to suffer for others, including not only human beings but all living things, compassion?

As Yourcenar presents it, compassion has nothing to do with a "sentimental conception of life." In order to be compassionate one needs courage and inner strength. Going back to my feeling about homeless people, I can see how easy it could be to entertain a distorted notion of social responsibility based on a looking-down-on type of charity. However, a homeless person is simply another human being who, for reasons unknown to me, is in this situation.

I have practiced different things in order to understand my connection to a homeless person, to poverty, and to all types of suffering. For example, I have tried to see my father's face in that person, and in general, when I do so, I have noticed that something happens within myself; something sweeps my indifference away. Even more, it generates a connection with human beings who lack the basic necessities of life or who suffer in other ways. I am able to incorporate that person into my daily thoughts and actions. This has required that I move beyond the dichotomy of what I can or can't do to change those people's lives.

Sparing some quarters is not the answer. I envision a better world. I know there are so many things that need to be changed, but I am also aware that there is no value in preaching to others what I do not put into practice in my own life. I am convinced that in order to understand how I can help other people, I need to observe their suffering without trying to get rid of the sorrow I feel within. This takes a lot of courage and honesty. No theories, no explanations, no justifications, nothing to mitigate that reality. I have to let that suffering permeate my soul, while at the same time not allowing myself to become saddened or depressed. I have to accept the sorrow in the world-an acceptance that is not intellectual, but rather an acknowledgment of and understanding of the human condition. As a human being, I need to acknowledge the sorrow of others in my daily life. When sorrow appears, that sorrow has a brother, a sister, a son, a mother, a father; my sorrow is not alone and, for sure, is by far not the worst.

Having looked directly into the core of suffering and sorrow, while stopping all inner interpretations, I find it easier to choose how to act; I hold the suffering and sorrow of other people in mind as a point of reference for my own existence, and not out of reaction. This reminds me of what Gandhi said: When in doubt about what action to take, one should think of the most miserable human being in the world. If the action one is considering would help that person in some way, it would be the right choice.

If I can live that sorrow myself, not in a morbid way, and at the same time become more conscious of what I have received, I may discover what I really want to give back to society. This takes away the desire to get rid of unpleasant feelings-a desire which could interfere with what I would describe as my vocation. My life is no longer separated from the life of other human beings. This doesn't come as a nice thought, but as a concrete way of living. Simple actions such as preparing food can bring into my mind and heart those who do not have something to eat and can generate hopeful thoughts for a fair and equitable world. As a practical consequence, I surely won't waste any food.

Gradually this practice makes way for a more conscious life. I expand my understanding of what the world needs and my relationship with other human beings. Perception and judgments about my role in life change. Life acquires a more global scope. So, by not giving away those quarters clinking in my pocket, I have allowed myself to work toward an understanding of what compassion might be. Only by going through this process can I think of how to help a homeless person without acting simply out of reaction.

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