Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Like a Bear Robbed of her Cubs

Compassion evokes not only tenderness but also the will to right wrongs.

By Stephen A. Privett, S.J.

In its recently revised Strategic Plan, Santa Clara University announced that it would "excel in educating men and women for competence, conscience, and compassion." The first two qualities are not unexpected in university vision statements, but the inclusion of compassion is neither common nor self-evident.

[Bear with Cubs]

Why did we enshrine this old-fashioned virtue as one of the central educational objectives of our institution? Are the qualities of pity and mercy often associated with this virtue what we hope to teach our students?

To answer, let me begin with two images. One is drawn from a 19th century Russian short story in which members of the nobility weep copious and cathartic tears during the performance of an opera while remaining completely indifferent to their servants literally freezing to death outside. The other image, from The Sands of Dunkirk, is of Surgeon-Lt. Richard Prembrey weeping as he watches a dying soldier strip off his own blanket and place it across the shivering body of a pneumonia-stricken trooper in the next bunk.

The nobles in the first story shed tears of self-indulgent and dehumanizing sentimentality; the second story is a description of the power of compassion in human affairs. I think humanistic education has the wherewithal and the responsibility to distinguish compassion from its counterfeits and to educate students for the former.

According to the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, compassion is innate. "There is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom," he writes, "some spark of friendship for human kind, some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and the serpent." This small particle is the leaven that raises us to our full humanity and links our lives to those of suffering men and women. Nurturing that spark seems to me an appropriate goal for a university.

There is no more damning example of the perversion of what was once considered "humanistic education" than the cultural artifacts-books of Goethe's poetry, recordings of Schubert and Beethoven-recovered from the officers' quarters in the death camps of Nazi Germany. These well-educated and cultured men bore macabre witness to the power of those "elements of the wolf and the serpent" to smother compassion. The end result was a way of being that was so profoundly deviant that it defies explanation. Whatever one holds about the content of a humanistic education, its intended outcome cannot be people who appreciate the great achievements of humanity but do not care about human life.

In other words, compassion is not just about refined feelings. Alicia Partnoy, former vice chair of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA and a victim of the "dirty war" in Argentina, argued this point at a recent Stanford University conference, "Towards a Compassionate Society in the 21st Century." In 1977, Partnoy was secretly detained for more than three months by the Argentine military. During that time she was bound and blindfolded and repeatedly subjected to torture, sexual harassment, and death threats. Later, she was transferred to jail without trial before her expulsion in 1979 and subsequent exile in the United States.

Partnoy took issue with the conference's focus on compassion because the word is commonly misunderstood to mean simply "to feel or suffer with the other; to pity; to show mercy." She has learned from her own experience that "feeling another's pain," pace President Clinton, leaves the victim feeling powerless and diminished. What victims want, according to Partnoy, is not that people suffer with them but that people work with them to achieve justice, the strongest yearning and deepest need of all victims.

There is no doubt that we generally equate compassion with mercy, pity, and tenderness and that this blending together of meanings robs compassion of its depth and power. The root of the Hebrew word for compassion is rahamin, the "trembling womb" of a birthing mother. The implication is clear: The prime analogue for compassion is the bond-both physical and psychological-that ties a mother to her child and produces a visceral reaction when her child is threatened.

One author suggests that an apt metaphor for compassion is not tearful sympathy but the enraged reaction of a mother bear when her cubs are endangered. This metaphor is applied by the Prophet Hosea to the God of Israel: "I fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast."

Compassion is the heartfelt capacity whereby the weakness, suffering, and vulnerability of another draws us in and impels us to act. In William Bennett's The Book of Virtues, compassion includes "sensitivity to what is weak and/or wounded, as well as the vulnerability to be affected by the other. It also demands action to alleviate pain and suffering." Compassion is a two-sided coin: If we are sensitive and vulnerable enough to be moved by suffering, we are simultaneously motivated to deal with those persons or conditions responsible for such suffering-politicians, governments, corporations, churches.

It is no surprise that anger is a frequent companion of compassion. This is not the anger of hatred but a byproduct of love and concern. The distinction is illustrated by these different responses to personal tragedy:

After the execution of Karla Faye Tucker earlier this year for the murder of Deborah Thornton, the murdered woman's husband said, "Justice for Deborah Thornton is complete. I want to say to every victim, demand this. This is your right. Demand your right."

I contrast this vengeful attitude with the one I experienced firsthand from an elderly campesina in Guatemala. She told me that the soldiers who tortured and killed her daughter "did not really know what they were doing. They are just poor campesinos like ourselves. They are not our enemies. We have to continue to fight against hunger and repression for the sake of our children."

This comparison illustrates how a similar experience leaves one person embittered and angry and the other hopefully determined to struggle against the deadly forces of her world.

South African theologian Albert Nolan offers a framework for nurturing such compassion that includes four phases or aspects. These need not be mutually exclusive or rigidly sequential. The first phase is exposure to and direct contact with the inhuman conditions that haunt the lives of the world's 800 million poor-the distended stomachs of malnourished children, the demoralized lives of the chronically unemployed, the frustration and anger of peasants forcibly evicted from their land, the tears of parents whose child has died from diarrhea. The obstacle to developing compassion at this stage is the facile argument that charity begins at home, sometimes expressed as the conviction, "This is none of my business."

The next phase is characterized by the insight that the suffering brought on by poverty is not "God's will" or the result of bad luck, laziness, or lack of development. Poverty is not the work of evil individuals but the result of economic, political, and social policies that must be readjusted if they are to promote the common good.

An individual in this phase realizes that relief work directed towards alleviating the suffering caused by poverty—the symptoms—must be supplemented by analysis and efforts that deal with the underlying causes of such suffering. In this phase, further development of compassion may be arrested by a paralyzing sense of one's inability to effect sufficiently radical changes in the face of the overwhelming scale of the problem.

With the third phase comes the understanding that victims are not reducible to the stereotype of helpless objects of pity. Rather, they are seen as the necessary agents for changing the conditions and policies that cause their suffering. To successfully negotiate issues at this phase, an individual has to work through a romantic idealization of the poor that endows them with superhuman wisdom and virtue. If left unresolved, this idealization ultimately leads to disillusionment when the poor do not live up to this impossible ideal.

The final phase comes with the realization that the categories of "we" and "they" are not the appropriate lenses through which to look at human suffering. The awareness dawns that we are all human and that our humanity requires us to work together to address the causes of inhumanity. Martin Luther King Jr. captured this aspect of compassion when he told his fellow African Americans that the destiny of whites "is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

People who completely develop compassion realize that they cannot be humanly in the world while remaining indifferent to and unengaged by the sufferings of the poor. But Nolan observes that "it would be an illusion to imagine that we can reach [this ideal] without a long personal struggle that will take us through several stages, dark nights, struggles, shocks, challenges." To paraphrase the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is no cheap compassion.

Nolan's model for nurturing compassion names the challenges we face in bringing this quality to its culmination in human and humanizing action. Ironically, one of those challenges is reason. Many of us are accustomed to thinking of reason as the path to right action and emotion as something that gets in the way of doing the right thing.

But emotion can provide the energy and conviction for ethical behavior while rationality can sometimes be a brake on action. As Santa Clara Philosophy Professor William Prior observes, "Reason cannot "argue us out of" our compassion in the presence of human suffering; it can, however, harden us to that suffering by preventing us from acting as our emotions would dictate."

On the other hand, reason—not compassion—is the faculty that analyzes and assesses the underlying causes of so much human suffering. Nolan's schema highlights the partnership that must exist between the two if we are to be fully human.

Santa Clara University's commitment to offering students an education that includes both reason and compassion is grounded in the conviction that the human enterprise is best advanced by persons who have achieved this completeness. The University believes the educational environment that offers the best hope of nurturing such people is one that integrates rigorous inquiry with reflective engagement and creative imagination such that individuals discover within themselves a commitment to creating a more humane and just world for everyone.

How does that work in practice? A recent graduate explained how his student experiences in rural Guatemala changed his worldview. He said that if he put himself in a line beginning with the wealthiest people in the world and ending with the poorest, his place would be towards the very front. What is important is the direction he chooses to look. If he always looks forward to the wealthy end, he is going to think he needs more. But if he turns around to look in the opposite direction at those who have less, his life can be transformed. So, it should be said, can theirs.

Stephen A. Privett, S.J., is the provost of Santa Clara University.

Further Reading

Bennett, William. "Compassion." The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Buckley, Michael J., S.J. "The University and the Concern for Justice: The Search for a New Humanism." Thought 57 (June 1982).

Prior, William. "Compassion: A Critique of Moral Reductionism." Philosophy & Theology 2 (1987) p. 173-191; also in Rodney Taylor and Jean Watson, eds. They Shall Not Hurt: Human Suffering and Human Caring. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1989, p. 33-51.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.