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WEEK 19: Being compassionate

See this outward-looking, social virtue in your life 

Home > #3- Practice > Week 19 – Being compassionate

To build your virtue literacy further, this week you will focus on virtue of compassion.

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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Being in someone else’s shoes

The virtue of compassion is a social virtue, because it has to do with the way that you interact with others around you, and in particular with those that are suffering and in need.

Compassion is the ability to stand with others in their distress and to take the reality of your neighbour seriously. It is an active disposition towards sharing and supporting those who are facing adverse circumstances. The roots of the Latin word ‘compassion’ literally mean to ‘suffer with’.   Aristotle elaborated further on this, indicating that for compassion to be present the suffering must be serious, undeserved and potentially might befall us as well. [KK2]

By nature, we tend to see our own perspectives and feel our own needs. When you develop the virtue of compassion, you also take on another’s perspective and feel their needs. Some would go as far a suggesting that compassion erases the distinction between yourself and others.

Simply put, compassion is the character trait whereby you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, listening to them and knowing their needs. In this way, compassion is foundational to other social virtues, including justice, kindness, honesty and love, for it helps you become aware of those around you.

Is compassion important?  The Dalai Lama suggests that compassion is essential for society:  ‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.  Without them, humanity cannot survive’. Schopenhauer, from a different perspective, claimed that compassion is fundamental to all ethics. 

Is the virtue of compassion in your character?

You may recall that back in Week 1, you considered 5 descriptors of genuine growth in your character.  Use these descriptors now to mentally respond to the following questions about the virtue of compassion.

  1. Concerning your attention, to what extent to you notice and attend to situations that require compassion?
  2. Concerning action, how often do you bend your will to act in ways that provide relief to those around you? Can you think of recent instances where you have brought aid and relief to someone?  These acts can be referred to as acts of benevolence or acts of mercy.
  3. Concerning your emotions, are you familiar with feelings of empathy?  Do you feel the predicaments and suffer for the pain of others?
  4. Concerning your desires, do you want to be less egocentric and more altruistic?  Is it your ambition to make a difference in the suffering of the world?
  5. Concerning your expression, how do others perceive you? Would those that know you describe you as someone who puts him/herself in someone else’s shoes?  

In times of increasing selfishness, egoism and individualism, it can be helpful to think specifically of people in your sphere of influence who need your compassion and mercy.  The Confucian scholar Mencius, for example, claimed that the core of benevolence is found in serving one’s own parents.  What is your stance towards your parents?  One of demanding or one of helping?

The opposing vices

It is easy to see the deficiency of compassion in the vice of disregard that has no consideration for the interests or needs of others, in the vice of selfishness which always puts yourself in the first place, in the vice of indifference where no amount of suffering in others elicits a response and  in the vice of cynicism where you doubt whether others even have genuine needs at all.

Perhaps the excesses of compassion are less obvious, but they need to be carefully understood as they can lead to the vice of self-annulment.  Benevolence to others must be balanced with healthy benevolence to yourself.

Do any of these describe you?  If they do, and if your score in the Virtue Test was low in this virtue, then you may want to work further on the virtue of compassion in your character.

Stories of compassion

Around the beginning of the 17th century seven young noblemen began to meet in a hospital in the Italian city of Naples to provide food for those afflicted by incurable diseases. In time, their work became the Pio Monte della Misericordia, an organisation that collected vast amounts of money and coordinated a large organisation that was devoted to works of mercy.

In particular, the Pio Monte della Misericordia engaged in the ‘seven works of mercy’, consisting in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the prisoners, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor.

These are carved onto the heptagonal table around which the young governors met, each rotating around it from year to year to take a different place and assuming charge of leadership in a different work of mercy.

This story shows us that compassion is a virtue that is often exercised by those that are more fortunate. But the less fortunate are often the greatest examples of compassion. One of the most famous women of our time, Maria Teresa of Calcutta, who devoted her life to assisting the poorest of the poor in India, tells the following story.

One night a man came to our house and told me: “There is a family with eight children. They haven’t eaten for days.” I grabbed some food and set off. When I came to them I saw the faces of those little ones marked by hunger. Their faces showed no pain or sadness, only the profound suffering caused by fasting. I gave the rice to the mother, who divided it into two parts and came out with half the ration. On the way back I asked her: “Where did you go?”. He gave me a very simple answer: “Come on, my neighbours, they’re hungry too!”.

His altruism didn’t surprise me: the poor are really very generous. However, I was surprised that he knew about his neighbours. Usually when we suffer we are so focused on ourselves that we have no time for others [AL].

Additional resources

You are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 20 – Being diligent

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