Is Compassion Just a Cheap Value Judgment?

Drunk Jedi Wisdom: Kinda Master Your Life by Following the Crooked Path of the Drunk Jedi

No, I do not feel bad for him. It's his own fault for throwing himself a at moving vehicle.

So he got hit. It’s his own fault for throwing himself a at moving vehicle.

The kitten on the screen had one eye, but was still so adorable. The shot slowly faded to a cute puppy, which I was told had been beaten, left without food for days and abandoned. The next kitten had one eye. Were all the cats abused by the same person?

I felt deep compassion for these animals. And then I saw that video explaining that the national Human Society of the United States doesn’t actually run any pet shelters. Most of the donations, says the woman in the video who channels Sarah McLachlan’s sonorous tones to such great effect, goes to hire lawyers who lobby congress to “eliminate farms with animals.”

My compassion evaporated. I felt duped. As my judgment changed, I realized my “compassion” had never really been anything more than a value judgment. I bestowed it, like some kind of blessing, on a cause I considered worthy.

I think many of us use compassion in this way. We are selectively compassionate.

“Passion” means “suffering.” “Compassion” means “to suffer with.” I think that most of us who think of ourselves as compassionate are just laying value judgments on things.

The same goes for empathy, “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” A lot of empathy is just value judgments, too.

We feel compassion for people or causes we identify with, like someone who shares our political or spiritual beliefs, a fellow minority, someone suffering in a way we can relate to, or someone we just like for some reason. Maybe they’re really cute.

For whatever reason, we have deemed their suffering worthy of our compassion. It’s more than sympathy. It’s more than a passing, “Aw, that’s sad . . . I’m in the mood for Starbuck’s.” It’s like we actually take a little time–or even better, we take a little action–to support someone.

When it comes to having compassion for causes that are less important to us, or which we don’t understand so well, we’re less receptive. It’s not so easy to feel the pain of those we disagree with politically. It’s not easy to have compassion for our nutty aunt who lives in the forest and names all the raccoons–even the one that bit her and gave her rabies. It’s not easy to feel the plight of those who are serving time in prison.

Okay, so this is perfectly natural. Why should we feel compassion for things we don’t care about? I mean, we can’t get all weepy over every little thing. It’s only natural that the causes we’re most familiar with would move us most deeply.

The problem is that compassion is such a powerful tool, and we are shortchanging it. We’re basically using it as our stamp of approval.

We need to involve our imaginations with our compassion more often. Having real empathy for someone who isn’t like you requires a lot of imagination. You have to understand what they’re going through. You have to really try to feel it. This takes a little effort, but it’s so very necessary if we’re going to live in a peaceful world.

And that’s so very necessary when there are upwards of seven billion people on the planet, all of us so different, and many of us possessing weapons with the power to destroy more than anyone should have the power to destroy.

But one thing that every person in the world has in common is that we all want to be understood.

This week, I’m going to find a cause I’ve never learned much about. Something I feel absolutely nothing for, or maybe some element of it kind of repels me a little. Like saving snakes, or something. I’m going to learn about it, and develop a sense of compassion and responsibility for it. It’ll make me a rounder person.


L. Marrick is a historical fantasy writer and freelance copywriter. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. She eats too much chocolate and still doesn’t believe downward dog is supposed to be a restful yoga pose. You can connect with her at either of her websites.

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