Posted on: Feb 17, 2023
“Our duty is not to see through one another, but to see one another through.”
The statement is another of those now anonymous observations that someone once created in hopes of distilling our lives to the essence. When enough of the right people heed its message, the course of human history will change for the better.
This is, of course, a hope—not an expectation.
Yet, something interesting is happening in our culture. The academic world has dramatically increased in the last 30-40 years an interest in themes we might include under the umbrella of the “common good.” A noteworthy example is the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The School of Medicine created the Center because it recognized how “science has made great strides in treating pathologies of the human mind. Far less research exists, however, on positive qualities of the human mind, including compassion, altruism and empathy. Yet these prosocial traits are innate to us and lie at the very center of our common humanity.”
Given that our capacity to feel compassion has ensured the survival and thriving of our species over millennia, researchers decided to learn more about it.¹
A writer drawing on the Center’s work speaks of compassion as “‘. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.'”
The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying in a much less academic way, “If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child.”
The noted Christian activist and writer Jim Wallis² relates a new report in the same vein.
“I recently heard a story on the radio. A reporter was covering that conflict in the middle of Sarajevo, and he saw a little girl shot by a sniper. The reporter threw down his pad and pencil, and stopped being a reporter for a few minutes. He rushed to the man who was holding the child, and helped them both into his car.
“As the reporter stepped on the accelerator, racing to the hospital, the man holding the bleeding child said, ‘Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.’
“A moment or two later, ‘Hurry my friend, my child is still warm.’
“Finally, ‘Hurry. Oh, God, my child is getting cold.’
“When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead. As the two men were in the lavatory, washing the blood off their hands and their clothes, the man turned to the reporter and said, ‘This is a terrible task for me. I must go tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.’
“The reporter was amazed. He looked at the grieving man and said, ‘I thought she was your child.’
“The man looked back and said, ‘No, but aren’t they all our children?’
“Yes, they are all our children [Wallis says]. They are also God’s children, and he has entrusted us with their care in Sarajevo, in Somalia, in New York City, in Los Angeles, in my hometown of Perry, Georgia, and here in Washington, D.C..”
“The Biblical Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the root word for womb, rechem . . . .” This emphasizes the importance of nurture in learning what compassion is and how to practice being compassionate.
In the Common English Bible, writers use the word “compassion” 121 times. In the earliest gospel, Mark relates that “when Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd (6:34).”
In two of Jesus’ best known parables, the Good Samaritan had compassion on the robbers’ victim who had been beaten, and the father of the Prodigal Son was moved with compassion when he saw his son in the distance running home.
Paul wrote to the early Jesus followers in Ephesus, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ (Eph 4:32).”
Another anonymous proverb is apt: “When God measures a person, God puts the tape not around the head but around the heart.” The heart is the starting point. The head becomes the servant to the compassion that originates in the heart.
¹Tutu, Desmond, Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016. Pp. 252, 255.
²Wallis, Jim. Who Speaks for God? (New York: Delacorte Press, 1996), 72-73.