The concept of compassion
I have woken up to that quote every morning for months and wondered whether or not I agree with it. The first sentence I find adequate, if conventional. Certainly, there is an individual role in peace that is not frequently treated in politics. The second sentence I find likewise agreeable. Dichotomies such as that of peace and violence are rarely useful.
It is the third sentence that I find myself coming back to. “Peace is the manifestation of human compassion.” It is that word, “compassion,” that I wonder about.
Precisely what is compassion?
Etymology tells me it has something to do with the Latin roots ‘com’ and ‘pati’, which imply a definition of compassion as togetherness in suffering. The popular understanding of the word adds in an element of individual, first-person concern — of worry for the other’s condition — that the Latin stems leave out. However, I doubt anyone would argue with this definition of compassion at first glance.
This leaves me wondering: If compassion requires an element of suffering, does the Dalai Lama mean that in a world without suffering there can inherently be no peace?
When I think of the core concept, “passion,” it does not immediately conjure up images of disease and torture and horror. It conjures up something more representative, something more holistically human. It conjures up all powerful emotions and actions — both suffering and ecstasy.
And yet, why do we then limit the definition of compassion to suffering?
Passion has grown etymologically to include both concepts of intense good and intense ill. Why not compassion also?
Think of the quote again with this new understanding in mind. Peace is the manifestation of the capacity of human beings to feel together, in tragedy and in triumph. The effort for peace is then no longer the duty of some sad-sap conscience, but the ability of a biologically granted consciousness of the states of minds of others.
In fact, the closer we get to a science of compassion, the more the evidence points away from the popular notion of suffering producing an emotional response in the viewer.
Take, for example, a subset of neurons in the primate brain known as mirror neurons. Discovered only a few decades ago, these neurons fire (to put it very simply) both during action and during observation of that same action being performed by another.
Such synchronicity is far more profound than mere pity.
We in the Western world, in our plastic castles and our shiny cars, sometimes forget how little pity means and how ridiculous it is for us to cling to our consciences out of discomfort rather than understanding. The kind of compassion that really matters — that finds itself embodied in whatever peace we have — is not merely a compassion of suffering, but a compassion of the entire spectrum of human experience, including joy.
And that is an idea that I can agree with, an idea that the Dalai Lama eloquently expressed: Peace is the manifestation of our connections to each other and our ability to intuit what it means to be “other”.
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