The Problem with Compassion

Andrew and I took a short holiday to Darjeeling over Christmas. It was a change of scenery (lush mountains), a change of weather (freezing cold), and a change of perspective:


I discovered that to live in a place like Kolkata, you end up putting on some armor to guard your heart against the daily onslaught of suffering. You pass by countless who, having nowhere else to lay their heads, have made a small patch of sidewalk their home. You pass by children eager for money who cling to your arms and legs until you finally pry yourself from their little fingers. You make your daily walk through the red light area, passing rows of beautiful women lining the alleys and sidewalks and streets, women who have endured unimaginable abuse. To make matters worse, those who are suffering no longer exist as a nameless, faceless, anonymous mass, but as real people whose names you know, whose faces are familiar, whose hearts you have come to love. It is too much. Your heart tugs and pangs and sometimes breaks but then it guards itself again – it is an act of survival, of neccesity, of self-preservation.

But in Darjeeling, away from the overwhelming brokenness in Kolkata, I found my heart softening a bit and I was confronted again with the problem of compassion.

You see, the problem with compassion, the problem with connecting with the suffering of others is that you don’t emerge unscathed. When you come across a man whose crippled legs constrain him to crawl the streets and look him in the eyes in a true and unguarded exchange – not a glance of pity or an uncomfortable aversion of the eyes, but a greeting that communicates “I see you. I know you are here at my feet. I believe you matter and are worthy of my acknowledgment, my respect, my affirmation of your humanity” – when you do that, something happens. Because when you acknowledge the humanity of another, you acknowledge his connection to yourself. He is no longer the “other,” he is bound to you and his pain momentarily becomes yours. You feel the dull ache in your knees from crawling all day on cold, uneven stones. You feel the bite of the wintry wind on your fingers that curl around flip flops, protecting your palms from sharp stones. You feel the interminable sense of shame and humiliation as people push past in uncomfortable distance, pretending you don’t exist or returning your upturned gaze with a look of disdain.

In compassion, you feel all this and though you smile and shout through the window of your eyes a soulful “I SEE you!”… you also pass by. And from within, your heart tells you that you just left your family, your brother, your self back on the cold pavement.

This is the problem with empathy, the burden of compassion. If you open yourself up to the humanity of others you will be wounded by their pain. You will feel their suffering, their loss, their grief, their shame.

But the alternative is no better. The alternative is the blind eye, the deaf ear, the cold heart. The alternative is to shut yourself off from the humanity of the other and so lose a piece of your own humanity. The alternative is to sever your connection to those around you and thus stunt your ability to be truly present, truly engaged, truly alive.

Empathy and compassion are deeply uncomfortable. They pull and tear and undo us. but they also connect us to the most profound experience of humanity: love. If we seek comfort and safety and distance from the reality of this collective human existence then we may succeed in isolating ourselves from pain…but we will also succeed in insulating ourselves from the deep languages of the soul which speak love and hope and joy and shalom.

“If we seek to save our lives, we will lose them.”

“Only in darkness, light. Only in death, life…” – Ursula Le Guin


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