Nature of Compassion
by: Richard Hudon
Compassion is ultimately detrimental to a capitalist system. In America, we value competition over cooperation. Socialism is demonized, as it implies that we are all members of a larger social organism, each one as necessary as the other. Capitalism thrives when legislature overpowers ethics, engineering complex regulations and exploiting loopholes that allow progress to go unchecked. Compassion has the ability to counteract these exploitations, but in American society, compassion is typically misdefined as sympathy or pity. One look at the current practices of our government and it’s corporations shows a power mad nationalist machine, filled with hate, prejudice and violence. A culture that understands compassion would never allow this continue. That is why it is necessary to explore the nature of compassion.
Sympathy and compassion are both products of empathy. Empathy is a natural born trait (with an exception being psychopathy). Empathy has the potential for both positive and negative utility; torturers for instance use empathy to seek out weakness in their subjects. If empathy is a tool, then compassion and sympathy are both potential outcomes, the difference being ego. A compassionate person disregards ego, their empathy for others being fueled by unconditional love and a sense of symbiotic eudaimonism. A sympathetic person’s empathy is fueled by pity or a sense of superiority, considering themselves removed from the other’s eudaimonia, often feeling relief that the subject’s suffering is not their own.
Nationalism runs rampant throughout the global community. This sense of pride and superiority often leads to competition, war and exploitation. The lack of compassion characteristic in capitalist society is due to it’s need to dominate, its desire for power. Less than a hundred years have passed since the World Wars, yet we continue to see national and religious pride tear countries apart. We fight revolution after revolution to end dictatorships and oppression, yet contribute to a system that reveres trillionaires and debases the impoverished. We promote fashion and entertainment, wealth and elitism, over safe food, sustainability and education.
I believe that education and experience go hand in hand. Knowledge is not something to be gained solely through reading and rehearsing, this method of instruction is detrimental and breeds sterile information. Experience, discussion and reflection are also necessary for true understanding. We are social organisms, our interpretation of the world is dictated through feedback with others. When we have a difference of opinion, a sense of compassion is necessary for objective understanding and respect, else that difference flairs to resentment or hostility. The most effective way to nurture compassion is through social interaction and shared experience. Unfortunately, American society is obsessed with video games, internet and other alienating forms of entertainment; entertainment wrought with violence, pride and consumerism. Violent differences and competition fuel capitalist economy, so it’s no wonder compassion is disregarded as weak, it implies everyone’s suffering and right to happiness are equal.
This course introduced me to Buddhism. Many of my own ethics and ideologies are reflected in the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for a New Millennium. Practicing patience, understanding, unconditional love, and pacifism have long been pursuits of mine. After reading this book however, I never realized how close my own path was to that of a Buddhist. Inspired by the words of the Dalai Lama and Pema Chödron, I have taken some time to research more on Buddhism, it’s practices and principles.
Suffering is universal. This was always something I struggled with prior to this course. I understood the concept of karma, and being that my background is in Wicca and Shamanism, I considered the idea of karma with regards to the three-fold return. So when suffering began to arise in my life full force, it was always difficult for me to understand why it was happening when I was trying my best to always be a positive force; if I was always putting out positive energy, why was negative entering into my life? The Buddha answers this with the first noble truth, the world is dukha (loosely translated as suffering). In the second noble truth, he defines the cause of this suffering as tanha (egoism/selfishness). And relief came when when the Buddha explains that this suffering can be overcome through living the eight-fold path.
Through living with compassion, one can spread compassion. With objective understanding and patience, those who practice compassion can teach others what it means to act with maitri (unconditional love and kindness). No one is expected to be perfect, even the Dalai Lama has emotional outbursts, but with practice, we can all move towards self-awareness and self-control. Understanding that our personal values are imperfect allows us to change as new information and situations arise. The biggest hindrance to modern society is its dependance on rules and regulations rooted in the past, if we are to move forward with a compassionate culture, we must replace laws with ethics, allowing each situation and action to be considered objectively. Peace is possible, it just requires more effort than war.
This paper was originally written as a final reflection for Professor Jeremiah Conway’s Nature of Compassion philosophy course., in the spring of 2016.