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The Lost Art of Compassion

May 11th, 2024

In the complex landscape of modern society, the concept of compassion often finds itself challenged and undervalued. As individuals navigate a world driven by competition and self-preservation, the scarcity of genuine empathy raises an important question: Why is compassion so elusive? Despite the perceived risks and complexities, is there still a place for compassion in our interconnected world? This introspective piece delves into the intricate dynamics of compassion, its relevance, and the transformative power it holds in shaping not just individual lives, but the fabric of society itself.

It’s not hard to see why compassion may not be a particularly valued quality in the modern day and age. I mean, we are still encouraged to be compassionate by today’s morals and ethical code, but that often seems like surface level advice that everybody preaches and pretends to subscribe to. In truth, it seems that the moment you look a bit deeper into a person’s own modus operandi, it becomes apparent that the actual number of people who truly believe in compassion may not be as high as society makes it out to be.

Why is compassion scarce?

In truth, being compassionate is not only difficult - it can often be counter-productive. The current state of Western society can easily be described as a perpetual rat race, where everybody seeks to get ahead, and the easiest way to do it is by making sure that others fall behind. Even if you aren’t naturally inclined to use this strategy for success in life, knowing that other people around you won’t have the same scruples means that being too compassionate can be dangerous. Maybe you truly want to help someone in need, maybe you even help them, but once the tables are turned, and you are the one in need of help, you may often find that the good deed you’ve done earlier has long been forgotten. Such situations teach people that being decent, compassionate, and empathetic is oftentimes harmful and not only to them, but also to their closest people. After all, once you are responsible not only for yourself, but also for a family of your own, it’s only natural to no longer have the willingness to use your time, energy, or finances to help strangers (who are most likely never going to appreciate it).

Is compassion obsolete?

I am not a proponent of adopting the literal meaning of the saying “turn the other cheek”, which is why advocating compassion is a bit more difficult. After all, if your main goal is to be a wholly good person who is always ready to lend a helping hand no matter what, you don’t really need to justify compassion - it’s just what you want to be. However, if you are like me and don’t have those saintlike qualities of character, but despite this you still want to be a decent person (and not just pretend to be one), then you probably want to know that there’s an actual point in being compassionate. That caring for anyone outside your closest circle of friends and family isn’t deprived of meaning. In other words, you may need a rational justification for being compassionate.

Considering my opening paragraph, it may seem difficult to reasonably justify the value of compassion. However, in a way, it makes it easier. Just think about it - why has this world turned into such a rat race? Would every aspect of life be permeated by such cutthroat competition if people had a bit more compassion for their fellow man? Sure, always trying to rise above others is a natural instinct that many people have, but if we were more compassionate to one another, even this instinct will no longer have the same negative connotation that it currently does. Because the problem doesn’t come from someone rising above the rest, it comes from what happens afterward. Does that person use their position to put others down or does he or she use it to help the ones who are less fortunate? The answer to that question lies in the presence (or absence) of compassion.

The avalanche effect

I can already hear you saying that “But even if I act out of compassion, other people won’t, and the world would still be the same”. Yes, that is true - you probably don’t have the power or influence to cause any significant change in society to make it more compassionate. However, there are two things you should remember here. 

The first one is that each individual is a part of something bigger, be it a family, a group of friends, a school class, a city, a country, or the entire human population on planet Earth. We are interconnected with the other people who form those groups, and we have some influence over them with our actions, words, and behaviors whether we want it or not.

The second thing is that you should never underestimate the importance of setting an example. I believe that most people ultimately want to do the right thing, but since this is also usually the difficult thing, most chose not to. However, once someone else does it, showing it is not so difficult, it also becomes easier for other people to do it too. It gives them courage that choosing the right rather than the easy way isn’t pointless, because they won’t be alone, because someone else is already doing it. And from a single person choosing to do the right thing, it’s possible that many others follow the set example, creating an avalanche.

Now, I agree that this sounds a bit too optimistic. There are countless examples of compassionate people who never make a significant difference, and that’s understandable. Self-preservation is a very strong instinct and compassion often goes directly against it. But even if your acts of compassion make a small positive change in the life of a single other human being, that’s already a net positive in the grand scheme of things. And let’s be fair, your compassion can improve the lives of a lot more than one person, and that’s without significantly making your own life more difficult. © · 2024