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Compassion is Not Just for Infants: A Meditation on Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Tenth Rule
Be Precise In Your Speech
I have been dismayed of late over some of the evil carried out under the guise of “compassion.” Dr. Peterson has been defining “compassion” as the overwhelming maternal instinct to protect the helpless infant. I do understand that he is using the word in accordance with mainstream usage and understanding. But the word “compassion” in its original sense is a beautiful one, and I don’t want to see that meaning lost. By considering the etymology of the word and a story illustrating its meaning, it is my hope that we might become wise enough to discern between faux compassion and true compassion.
The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer together.” Com is the Latin root for with; passion in its original sense does not refer to sexual or emotional expression but to suffering. I am writing this piece on Good Friday, and we speak of the Passion of the Christ in reference to the sufferings of Christ. To experience compassion, then, is to experience another person’s suffering as though one were in the same skin as the sufferer.
But true compassion cannot begin and end with emotions. Compassion is distinct from empathy, which is to feel the same feelings as another; compassion is distinct from altruism, which is simply to do good works without any emotional involvement. Compassion, as used in the modern sense, is often invoked when the more accurate term would be pity, which implies a certain condescension rather than being “in the same skin with.” Compassion must wed a sense of suffering together with an earnest desire to alleviate the suffering, not in a way that would make the benefactor feel most gratified or virtuous, but in a way that serves the sufferer’s highest long-term good.
The best example I know of compassion in action is the story of the Good Samaritan. We all know the story: a certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was taken by bandits, brutalized, and left to die slowly and painfully. Both a high priest and a Levite walked by and observed him lying there suffering and passed by on the other side of the road. We don’t know what was in their hearts or on their minds. They may have felt all the feelings of compassion in the world, but without action to alleviate the suffering, the feelings were useless.
But there was someone who showed true compassion to the dying man, and that was the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were, in that era and culture and religious setting, the most “marginalized” of all people. “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans,” was the proverb of the time. We don’t know anything about the man’s life, but we can guess from the simple words, “he had compassion,” that he knew what it was to suffer and was motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering.
The Good Samaritan came to the wounded man where he was. It is instructive that he was not looking at him with pity from across the road, nor looking down on him. The Good Samaritan got down in the mud and the blood and the filth of the road next to the wounded man.
Next, he bound up and bandaged the man’s wounds. So many actions taken today under the guise of compassion create new wounds instead of bandaging existing ones. But that is not the way of the Good Samaritan. As he bandaged and bound, he poured in oil and wine. This is hard to understand in the context of our own modern methodology of wound care, but wine was used in this time period as a disinfectant and oil as an antibacterial and antimicrobial. Oil was often used to anoint the sick, and modern medical research has proven its efficacy in wound care.
The Good Samaritan didn’t just bandage up the man and leave him to heal, or not, in the ditch; he put him on his own beast of burden and brought him to an inn, a place where he could rest and be nourished and have his wounds tended in peace and safety. But he didn’t rely on the innkeeper’s charity; he made provision for the care of the man and made it clear that the innkeeper would be reimbursed for whatever extra he spent.
This is compassion. Not faux virtue signaling. Not the overwhelming maternal instinct. Not encouraging vulnerable and fragile people to believe lies that will cause them further wounding. But the binding up of wounds, both visible and invisible, and the provision of a safe place to heal.
Unless infants are the only human beings on the planet to experience suffering, then compassion is not just for infants. True compassion says, “You must go out into the world and do the work that was given you to do. You will be wounded, broken, and beaten by the world. I cannot protect you from that pain, and I wouldn’t even if I could; but I will feel it with you, I will hurt with you, I will cry with you. And I will have you come back to me to heal and recuperate and put all your broken pieces back together, and then I’ll send you right back out because no matter the personal cost, the world needs you to finish your life's work.”
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, understands poor human nature intimately. Consider her depictions of the devouring mother and the good mother. Mrs. Dursley, the overprotective mother who coddled her son Dudley until he was unfit to live in the world, embodied faux compassion. Contrast her actions with the true compassion of Mrs. Weasley, the wise mother who accepted that her children must go out into the dangerous world to do their work, but that they must always have a home and loving arms to return to when they were broken and wounded.
By being precise in our speech, by differentiating between the compassion of the dark tetrad personality and the compassion of the Good Samaritan, perhaps we can fight against the encroachment of Babel and the flooding of great evil.
Author’s Note: If you have enjoyed this essay, look for the continuation of my meditations on the Twelve Rules.
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