Empathy and compassion, such vital and life-giving human virtues, are rarely celebrated in today’s popular culture. Covers of magazines and newspapers are filled with celebrities who seem to strive to look better, or to do something more shocking than their peers. This deliberately created animosity also spills out into the world of sport, music, and fashion. Social media literally ‘feeds’ its consumers a diet of a competitive, comparative attitude which appears simply to induce anxiety, self-doubt and low self -esteem in readers. Along with this media coverage, our country and wider world appear to have become trapped in a cycle and culture of violence; with daily news of stabbings, shootings and gang related violence seeming to happen all around us, in all walks of life. This leads me to wonder where there is space in today’s world for empathy and compassion? Are these not precisely the virtues needed to break down the feelings of fear, aggressive competition and near constant violence with which we are surrounded? Early on, media coverage of the Covid pandemic appeared to show us glimpses of the best of human nature which I think many of us had forgotten existed. We began to see daily examples of people going above and beyond to help their fellow human beings and look after the vulnerable in our society. However, after months of living with the pandemic, and an attempt at a phased return to ‘normality’, those people who are advocates for compassion appear to have been pushed out of the limelight and overshadowed by a return to a culture of egotistical self-interest. Did society really get tired of celebrating compassion so quickly?

Empathy and compassion are powerful virtues which develop a thriving, selfless and successful community. It should not be surprising then to hear faith leaders in Buddhism and Christianity teach the importance of actively putting the needs of others before our own. There is an enduring desire from the 14th Dali Llama for humanity to move away from hatred and anger, and celebrate the interconnectedness of all of us in our common home on earth. Like Christianity, Buddhism teaches that compassion comes from a place of love. In an article on his website the Dali Llama tells his followers that

From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquillity comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. [1]

Pope Francis speaks passionately and frequently about the need for empathy and compassion for our societies to flourish, and he often reminds the Christian community of the teaching from the Gospel of Mark where Jesus teaches his followers to-

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’… ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” [2]

Jesus often suffered abuse and humiliation in his daily life and was treated as an outcast because of his compassion and the way he treated his fellow human beings. He touched the leper and the woman who was bleeding, and treated them with dignity and respect, which would have been unheard of in society at the time. These people were often not just ‘unclean’ in their communities but ‘unseen’. They were invisible and ignored and seen as burdens. Jesus’ empathy is clear in the Gospels and he endures more than most humans could, to show the world a new way of love, peace, and compassion which Christians endeavour to continue. Through his compassion and empathy, Jesus truly shows his humanity, his oneness with us and how he enters entirely into our lives and experiences, and it is this spirit which I feel is sadly lacking in our world at the moment. In the Gospel reading from last Sunday (27/09/20) St Paul describes how Jesus’ life embodied the virtue of the total giving of one’s self. In this letter from St Paul, he talks about resisting the temptation to act selfishly and encourages his followers to put other people’s needs before their own. St Paul uses Jesus’ life as an example explaining that he

“… emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” [3]

Pope Francis talks about compassion in the context of accompaniment and discipleship and how Jesus shows us the virtues of compassion and empathy through sharing in our journey, in our pain and suffering, and in our joy. This is a tangible way for Christians to understand how central these virtues are in following Christ. Pope Francis goes as far to say that we are shown the example of compassion as a gesture of sharing in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, he affirms, is a gift of Jesus’ whole self to humanity and that it is within this selfless gift that we truly understand compassion and sharing.

I have often wondered if Jesus ever suffered from a kind of compassion fatigue in his time living with humanity. And I wonder if our health, care, charity and religious workers, along with those generous, selfless, good human beings face this fatigue today. When we live in a world which appears to focus on and glorify violence, angst, greed, and conflict, why do so many people still keep helping, still keep caring? It is an incredible blessing that they do, and that there remain people in the world who amid disaster, conflict, injustice, and inhumanity continue to put others first. I think the answer lies in empathy and compassion being such powerful virtues. Faith leaders across the world call on humanity to reach out to those who are in need, and the compassion which comes from a place of such great love continues to endure, even through the darkest times.

I am convinced that it is this gentle power of love for neighbour which must give us the strength to look beyond the controversial, aggressive stories which dominate and stir anger, and instead actively seek out glimpses of the beautiful compassion which are present in our world. These are not lofty unobtainable goals. Whichever faith you follow or theology you hold, it is examples of selfless love which should give us hope and should reassure us that it is not a sign of hopelessness, or a weakness to love our neighbour. We may become fatigued by caring and giving and loving if we feel these are unfashionable or irrelevant virtues in our world, so maybe it is in these moments of fatigue that we step back and look at the good which these virtues can do in our global human family, and in our own lives. Maybe now is the time to look for, and focus on, the hope filled examples around us, and not be overwhelmed by those which appear hopeless.

(photo credit https://www.magsgooden.com/horizon/)


[1] https://www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion-and-human-values/compassion

[2] Mark 12:29-31, New International Version.

[3] Philippians 2: 7-8, English Standard Version.

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