THE HERESY OF COMPASSION
What’s love got to do with it? (2004)

Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count." - Albert Einstein

In the science-fiction film THX-1138 by George Lucas, the greatest crime was to fall in love, an offence punishable by death. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston Smith’s downfall begins with his romance with another prole. Throughout world literature, art and mythology, love is often portrayed as running contrary to power. It doesn’t come easy much of the time, whether it’s in stories or in real life.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell held that romantic love, as we know it today, originated with the Renaissance, when family-arranged marriages fell into decline. With the individual becoming "the measure of all things," a reversal occurred in the sentiments of the West. In a 1986 interview, Campbell noted that "the word AMOR spelt backwards is ROMA, the Roman Catholic Church," a body that justified marriages "that were simply political and social in their character."

Love is a state of mind that lies outside the jurisdiction of the temple, the marketplace and the empire. It can undercut allegiance to status, wealth and privilege. To be in love is, in a way, an involuntary act of protest, signaling the primacy of two hearts over any given authority.

Eros is the desire of the flesh. Amor is the desire for the other. Agape is spiritual love, the love for the neighbour, the community, reflecting a desire to connect with a larger sense of being and purpose. It’s also known as compassion. This state of mind runs further afield than person-to-person love. It can extend to those we’ve never met and never will meet, and even to non-human creatures.

Several years ago, a friend told me a story of meeting up with an acquaintance he had not seen since high school, who managed a small shop. She told him of her history, how she’d fallen in with a bad crowd in her teen years, ending up living in the States as a high-price call girl. She claimed that half her clients eventually broke down in her arms and cried. The encounter ended there.

These men weren’t after sex, or even love necessarily. They wanted penetration of a deeper sort. They hungered for compassion and the freedom to be vulnerable enough to receive it.

Buddhism, along with the three great monotheistic religions, sets great stock on empathy and understanding. In the secular world, compassion is valued for smoothing the hard edges of daily life. Yet it’s a state of mind that has been implicitly devalued in the theology of free-market economists, where freedom of choice and self-advancement are the focus of worship.

Economic experts tell us that market relations are prior to, and above and beyond, other social values. In this view, overanxious concern for the welfare of others is mostly a waste of time. Enlightened self-interest, taking compassion’s place like a cuckoo’s egg, will hatch all sorts of solutions to human suffering. We’re told to just give it time.

We’ve had 20-some years of this cultural programming, and the effects on psyches are becoming apparent. In his acerbic 2001 memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, British author Toby Young describes his five-year stint with Vanity Fair, the high-end New York lifestyle magazine. Young alludes to the portrayal of bittersweet romance in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, a fictional world light-years away from the zeitgeist of his colleagues. He concludes that "the current generation of New York journalists - the contemporary equivalent of the characters portrayed by Clark Gable, James Stewart and Cary Grant - don’t fare very well."

"During the five years I spent in Manhattan," he writes, "I had a sense of encountering people who weren’t quite human. This became apparent in any number of ways. One of the most striking was the overwhelming similarity of everyone I met, as if they all came off the same production line; they lacked that divine spark which makes all human beings unique... It sounds dreadful to say it, but it was as though they didn’t have souls."

That’s a pretty extreme statement, yet I don’t think Young is just being provocative or bloody-minded. His hive-mind New Yorkers may sound like characters out of a John Wyndham novel, but they’re not pod people, and they’re not limited to the US East Coast, either. I’ve met these types plenty of times. They represent Homo sapiens careerist: a harried creature with his or her nose to the grindstone and a finger to the wind.

These types often appear to be going through life on autopilot. Even their "spontaneity" has a rehearsed feeling. They aren’t exactly soulless, but their souls often seem asleep.

No doubt there are a number of reasons for what seems to be a flattening of affect among North American professionals. In these overworked, over-stimulated times, many of us withdraw from those most potent, problematic sources of information - other human beings. In this state of mental and emotional retreat, compassion becomes so much collateral damage (the ë90s gave us the expression "compassion fatigue").

Without agape, what chance is there for amor? I find myself sometimes wondering if our urban tribes are incrementally losing the capacity to express love, or to even experience it to any great depth. And I don’t mean simply romantic love. Many people have told me how they find deep friendships are rare or impermanent in this part of the world.

Here’s the rub: deep friendship and romantic entanglement depend on an ability to transcend the self, but the self is the ultimate temple in the modern age. In the Church of Me, there can only be one Pope.

In defining ourselves, we use the abstract benchmarks of money, status and power, bled of their grounding in community. In this cultural climate, love and even compassion can seem like foreign states of mind.

Remember "compassionate conservatism?" In the US, officially-sanctioned caring rarely registers more than a blip on the public relations radar, except when it is used to sell a war - on poverty, drugs, or the consumer’s mind. Or a war on those unlucky enough to occupy the rogue state du jour.

If the collective unconscious has caught some kind of soul-sickness, the output of the culture industry is symptomatic. Big-budget films, music, art and fiction rarely do more than travel from sentimentality to nihilism. When love is portrayed at all in the media, it’s often cartoonish and juvenile. Romantic love is increasingly denatured and commodified, to be packaged into blind date episodes or the 30-second parables of advertising.

The naive pop culture of previous generations may seem laughable, but I’m old enough to prefer the white bread faux-innocence of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me to the hip-hop street cred of Bitch Be a Ho.

The old cliche holds that art mirrors life, but like all cliches, there is more than a grain of truth here. It may not be an exaggeration to say that market relations have declared war on human relations. Yet, even if this is the case, this planet-plundering ethos cannot erase compassion without eliminating the human species entirely. Even though compassion may appear to be wilting, it has deep roots. Small acts of kindness are committed every day, and great acts of selflessness are not unknown, even among the unlikeliest people.

In his 1986 interview with Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers related the tale of a policeman in Hawaii who saves the life of a drowning man, while losing his own. He wondered how it can be that one person gives his life so freely for that of a stranger.

Campbell responded by referring to an essay by the German philosopher Schopenhauer, in which he asks how it is that a human being can so participate in the peril and pain of another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life. "How can it be that the first law of nature and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?"

Campbell continues: "Schopenhauer’s answer is that such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and the other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life. This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously realized under circumstances of crisis. For it is, according to Schopenhauer, the truth of your life."

The philosopher’s ideas were informed by his reading of eastern religions. Albert Einstein, a follower of the pantheist thinker Spinoza, said very much the same thing.

"A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a sort of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

When someone asked Gandhi how he could sacrifice himself so completely for India, he replied, "I do this for myself alone. When we serve others we serve ourselves." The Upanishads call this "God feeding God."

Cynics may regard this as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but such fierce allegiance to others is an every day reality to parents. What mother wouldn’t sacrifice her life for that of her child? We would think her something of a monster if she wasn’t willing to do so.

We can argue about the source of this selflessness, whether it’s engineered by the genes or conjured up by some greater source of being (or even if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive). But it’s undeniable that this archetypal mother-child relationship, the primary ground for all healthy connections through compassion, is extremely robust, no matter what the cultural or economic climate.

Compassion is not always easy, however. Many of us can see the self reflected in the eyes of a relative, a lover and even those of a stranger. More difficult is to extend compassion into alien territory, to find some kind of identity with the enemy. In his 2000 book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, writer Jack Kornfield describes a conversation he had on a train to Philadelphia with an African-American man, who ran a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia.

He tells the author of a 14-year-old boy in the program, who shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang.

At the trial, the victim’s mother sat and said nothing, until the very end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and staring directly at him, said "I’m going to kill you." The youth was then led off to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

Kornfield describes how after the first six months the mother of the slain teenager went to visit the killer. He’d been homeless before the killing, and she was his only visitor. They talked, and when she left she gave him money to buy cigarettes. She visited him again and then on a regular basis, each time bringing food and small items. As the end of his three-year sentence approached, she asked him what he planned to do when he got out. He was scared and uncertain because of his few options, so she offered to get him a low-level position at a friend’s business.

Then she asked where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered temporary use of a spare room in her home.

From Kornfield’s book: For eight months the boy lived there, ate her food and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she asked, "you remember in the court when I said I was going to kill you?" "I sure do," he replied. "I’ll never forget that moment."
"Well, I did," she went on. "I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this Earth.

I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit here and bring new things. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, as my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let me." And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had."

Compassion of a superhuman sort? There is something Buddhists call idiot-compassion; feeling love for someone while they beat you to a pulp is probably inadvisable. Many of us would think this mother’s act quite impossible for any normal person or ourselves. But there was a payoff for her here: in the attempt to "kill" the teenage boy through compassion, she liberated herself from years of grief and bitterness. (We aren’t told how and if she transformed him).

To follow the path of compassion doesn’t mean we passively acquiesce in evil, but it does mean an unwillingness to use the enemy’s means when practising resistance. To quote Gandhi again, "The question is no longer between violence and non-violence, it’s between non-violence and non-existence."

With all the forces of chaos and discord raging across the world like wildfire, the greatest act of noncompliance is to find deep connection to the worlds beyond the "skin-encapsulated ego," both within and without. This is what makes love so subversive, and compassion so revolutionary; their power to heal, to bring together, to connect.


Geoff Olson