John Bennison Words and Ways | The Capacity and Compunction for Compassion

The Capacity and Compunction for Compassion

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In a drenching rain in Oslo, an estimated 40,000 people recently stood in protest outside the courtroom where the self-confessed mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was being tried for his crimes. When convicted, under Norway’s laws, he will either be placed in a psychiatric facility or incarcerated for a minimum of 21 years.

This protest demonstration on the streets of Oslo, however, was not a lynch mob shouting for retaliatory justice to be meted out in equal measure to the violence Breivik committed. Instead, as an utter refutation of Breivik’s cruel and unspeakable acts, they sang a Norwegian version of Pete Seeger’s children’s song, Children of the Rainbow.  It was the very song Breivik had claimed was brainwashing the country’s youth and weakening their society by promoting more tolerant immigration policies.

A sky full of stars, blue sea as far as you can see
An earth where flowers grow, can you wish for more?
Together shall we live, every sister, brother,
Young children of the rainbow, a fertile land.


Meanwhile, in this country, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments pro and con in the dispute over the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB1170, and the state’s rights to usurp or supersede Federal immigration policies.  Opponents object to the arbitrary and subjective manner in which law enforcement could single out anyone suspected of being an illegal alien, tantamount to racial profiling; while exasperated proponents are determined to seek any means necessary to mitigate the detrimental impact felt by American citizens in border states.

And finally, this week the national media stage turned its attention to the one-year anniversary of U.S. special forces finding and killing Osama Bin Laden; a religious terrorist who makes the deranged Norwegian ideologue look like an amateur.

No matter what one’s opinions may be with regard to any of these three seemingly disparate stories a common question could be asked: Is there any place for a compassionate response to every person in each case?

That is, beyond any question of ethical and legal right or wrong, reason or rationale, human goodness or human evil, guilt and judgment, worthiness or worthlessness — when all is said and done — does there remain yet a response that is not only possible, but necessary, to acknowledge the dignity and worth of every human being?  In what are perhaps the most difficult and extreme examples just mentioned, do we have both the capacity and compunction to include in the mix some expression of compassion in such tragic stories of brokenness and estrangement, violence and vengeance.

It is not a matter of accepting or excusing the actions of another; nor even, in some cases, expecting forgiveness and reconciliation where all bounds of reasonableness have been surpassed.  It is rather a matter of acknowledging the utter necessity for what may seem to be the last resort, and should probably be the first: to allow the transformative power of compassion to short-circuit the typical juxtaposition of egos battling for same turf.

But how do we muster the capacity to express a sense of compassion for the sake of the other? And, what is it that wells up within us when we find ourselves moved to act with that sense of compunction; to refuse to cast one of us into the realms of outer darkness, or even stand for a fleeting moment in someone else’s shoes.


The Capacity for Compassion


A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a customer standing in front of the sales counter of a gun shop.  On the wall behind the sales clerk various rifles of different sizes and shapes were displayed.  The caption was a question posed by the clerk, “Well, just how much ground do you want to stand?”

This is the presumptive place from which we all function and relate to one another. I have my position, and you have yours.  In my own defense, at least I maintain my position based on principled convictions, right? In the center of my position I place my self.  From there, I safeguard my position, while advancing supremacy and dominance over your position.  It is in my best self-interest to do so. And that’s just the way it is.

But in an article for The Greater Good Science Center entitled, The Compassionate Instinct, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner contradicts such common assumptions with the evidence of new research. He begins with those common assumptions we all have that are taken for granted:

Humans are selfish. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, and war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. … Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Many question whether true compassion exists at all— or whether it is inherently motivated by self interest.
(But) recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good. 

Keltner describes various studies exploring the biological basis for compassion.  First off – and because I knew the Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root word as womb — it was not surprising to me when researchers found parents are naturally attuned to the welfare of their offspring; easily putting their child’s needs ahead of their own, with a sense of com-passio (“feeling with”).  However, it was also found when the same subjects were also asked to contemplate harm to unrelated others, the brain sensors showed a similar response, as well.

When given the opportunity to actually help, the same portion of the brain that produces pleasurable experiences was activated.  “It’s a rather remarkable finding,” Keltner observed, “helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire. The brain, then, seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering.”

That warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we do a good deed?  Keltner says it’s the oxytocin, a hormone that surges through the bloodstream when we make those otherwise-inexplicable connections with our offspring or intimates.  Experiencing such a rush can actually motivate us to reproduce the same feelings by simple gestures of compassion towards others; so that such altruistic acts become self-perpetuating (and self-serving, I would add, in the best sense of that term).

Even the autonomic nervous system that helps regulate blood flow and breathing patterns have been found to be altered as a result of these kinds of experiences.  We all know how our hearts begin to pound when we feel fearful or threatened; where the subsequent response is a choice to fight or flee.  Research confirms what perhaps only makes sense; that when a compassionate response is introduced, the heart rate goes in the other direction, even dropping below baseline levels.

Working with children, researcher Nancy Eisenberg found certain facial expressions can non-verbally convey expressions of compassion for young people.

And Keltner himself describes an experiment he conducted where the mere way in which one human being who touched another on the forearm, while both blindfolded, was able to communicate twelve different distinct emotions, including love, gratitude and compassion.

Clearly – biologically speaking – we not only have the capacity to act compassionately, but the desire for the pleasure it affords us, as well.

Why then, one might ask, do we deny ourselves the pleasure of compassionate living?  And where do we ever see anyone actually moved to so indulge themselves in such a manner of behavior?


One Compassionate Life


Despite these rather sterile analytics on the subject of compassion, it doesn’t take much for me to readily recall those old gospel accounts of the Galilean healer and sage; who is attributed with having wrought so-called miracles with a few simple words of pronouncement, or physical touch (e.g., Luke 8.40-50).

The afflicted are healed (e.g., Mt. 9.32-10.1), the dead are resuscitated (e.g., Luke 7.11-18), or hungry crowds are fed till satisfied with a few loaves of bread that are “miraculously” multiplied (e.g., Matthew 14.13-18).  We’re told every act is accomplished with a sense of compassion.

Now, moderns typically struggle to swallow these tales hook, line and sinker; as if their only power lies in a literal interpretation to “believe” what is clearly unbelievable on the most elementary level.  But the ancients would have better understood the mythic nature of these stories as tales of compassion, not fleeting magic tricks

After all, those who were cured or raised from the dead would surely get sick and die once again; and those whose bellies were filled today would be hungry again by morning.  Therefore, the greater miracle was to be found in the nearly identical way all these stories are told again, and again, and again.  “Filled with compassion …” the gospel writers say,, Jesus is shown as having the capacity to feel another’s pain.  He is impulsively moved out of a sense of compunction to respond with words or touch to the one in need.

Was the real Jesus really all that compassionate?  Or is the Jesus in these collections of gospel stories merely some idealized composite that makes him out to be more divine than human?  Could any other human being ever be that compassionate?  No wonder we prefer to elevate him to god-like status.

Despite the challenge to peal back the layers of tradition and get to the actual historical figure of Jesus – who he really was and what he actually said — there are a couple observations we can make with a certain likelihood about the actual Jesus character; as portrayed in numerous stories about his brief healing and teaching ministry.  And, in doing so, we can consider some elements to be found in this one compassionate life that was as human as yours or mine.

The first of these observations is the consistently haphazard way Jesus seems to have carried out his work, as he meandered the back roads of Galilee; interspersed with periodic confrontations with the institutional authorities, usually in the city.

Read between the lines and you might easily wonder if he really knew what he was doing.  His family reportedly thought he’d gone out of his mind.  And his closest friends and followers thought he seemed to have no real organization in place.  Just look at the management team he assembled, with no prior experience or qualifications; only their willingness to leave the daily drudgery of their dead-end jobs behind and follow him who knows where?  There was no viable strategic plan to achieve his goals and objectives.

While he is consistently portrayed as being pitted against a highly-developed institutional religious hierarchy, Jesus certainly offered no practical alternative.  He had no interest in capitalizing on his notoriety and founding his own breakaway religious sect. That would only come later when these early communities of believers began writing their gospels.

While Jesus could easily be regarded to be a prophetic reformer of his own tradition, he rarely stood his ground; yielding instead to the political and ecclesiastical powers and principalities of the world.  It was as if any agenda he had was more concerned with doing whatever he could, wherever he happened to go, to help anyone in need.

That, and of course his incessant talk of that in-breaking reign of God.  But with all the different ways he found to try to describe it over and over again, it might simply have all been described as a place of compassionate living; a place of loving God, and one’s neighbor as one’s self.  When asked the question that sets the stage for him telling the Good Samaritan story (Lk 10.25-37), he says as much himself.  Think about it.

He’d rattle off one of his parables, or reiterate a common wisdom say that wasn’t necessarily original. And, oftentimes while doing so, he might just happen to encounter a needful human being in a distressful situation.

It could be one infirm individual, and often an outcast, since ill fortune was interpreted as the result of God’s disfavor. Or it might be an entire, curious and befuddled crowd.  They were all somehow lost; as if cut adrift, with no place to take their stand of their own.  More than once — according to the gospel writers who borrowed a familiar image from Jewish scriptures (Numbers 27.17, 2 Chronicles 18.16) — they were described as “sheep without a shepherd.”

But all along, Jesus’ reaction — as well as his seeming involuntary motivation for doing something about the needful condition of the other person — was nearly always the same.  He was described as being moved with a compassion for their situation.

Not only that, the other thing that invariably threads its way through these accounts of this Jesus character is that this approach was not only haphazard, but indiscriminate as well.  He did not require proper credentials of his disciples to drop everything and follow.  That also meant no pre-requisite coursework was required to attend his free lectures, delivered without a schedule and with the location of the sage’s latest offering to be announced on the spot.

It also meant proper identification was not required to show proof of one’s religiosity or tribal identity, let alone one’s worthiness to hear what he had to say; in order to just happen to be in the right place at the right time to receive a healing touch or a simple pronouncement making them whole again.

[The one gospel story that appears to first be a digression from Jesus’ reflexive response of compassion is the story of the debate with the Canaanite woman who persuades him even the non-Jew deserves his healing touch (Mt. 15:21-28). Jesus’ normal “compassionate” response to the normal stories we read in the gospels is sparked this time by the faith of the ‘other’ in need, not by any innate or instinctive compunction on Jesus’ part.

But in this case, the “voice” of Jesus is likely the early faith community struggling with the necessary transition to move what would become a stand-alone Christian faith from what was — at the time the gospel was written — a here-to-fore Jesus sect of Judaism.  A faithful Jew would never associate with a Canaanite, let alone a Canaanite woman.

As such, it stands as a story of reversal, as well; where the Jesus character is the “convert.” The gospel writer’s message — attributing this apocryphal tale to Jesus — is that Jesus followers can no more regard any other human being as a dog (just about the worst insult possible in the ancient Mediterranean world), than Jesus could.]

The way Jesus behaved — the sum total of his actions and way of life – seemed to have less to do with what he believed, and more to do with the way he treated others.  All that business about “whosoever believeth in me,” is the ego-centric attribution of the early community of believers who sought to distinguish the messianic uniqueness of their savior from all the other competing super heroes and miracle workers in the religious pantheon of cultic gods and “sons” of god.

The only problem was that at the heart of the earliest Jesus tradition – like all the great religious traditions who trace their spiritual lineage back to its incarnated roots – was a person who showed remarkably little concern for himself, and a whole lot of compassion for the sake of the other.

When Jesus’ local notoriety spread throughout those backwater villages, time and again the crowds would seek him out; as if he was the One; as if he was the one and only from whom they could receive such divine benevolence.  But time and again, when he sees the throngs chasing after him, he gives a weary sigh and flees from the spotlight (e.g. “withdraws to a lonely place to pray …”), it is as if he longs for them to understand he’s not the only one.  Or, at least he shouldn’t be.


When he sees the throngs chasing after him, he gives a weary sigh and flees from the spotlight … it is as if he longs for them to understand he’s not the only one.  Or, at least he shouldn’t be.


That’s when he sends his disciples out, two by two, with the same authority he has already demonstrated for them, to do the same as he has done for them. He empowers them to work what is the greater miraculous feat than what he alone can accomplish; namely, to act similarly with compassion to anyone and everyone they encounter.

He has shown how it is capable to do so. Now he instills in them the desire. From whence does such desire come?  It is the compunction that stems from that original divine desire, that we treat one another as we would want to be treated ourselves.


Cultivating Compassion


 Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, 1850


Earlier we considered evidence contradicting the presumption that the primordial natural instinct of self-interest forever dooms us to a short-sighted future of fighting or fleeing; that “tooth and claw” is, in fact, not the nature of evolving reality, but an outmoded distortion of reality.

We are evolutionary creatures who experience pleasure, even joy, when we place the needs of another over our own self interests; or at least occasionally remove ourselves from the centers of our separate universes to understand what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes.

It does not take much to find an overabundance of examples of how we suffer from a dearth of such a thing.  As we desperately seek to find sustainable solutions in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control, conventional thinking suggests consideration of a compassionate response is a luxury we can ill afford.  The escalation of religiously-inspired fanaticism has only reinforced such conventional thinking.

But it is only a more compassionate world that might, in fact, ultimately save it.

Here’s the problem, of course: It is at a time when compassion is most needed that it is most difficult to come by. Feeling compassion is one thing; acting on it is another. We still must confront a animating question:

Can we connect with the divine source of that compunction we can still  feel stirring with us, to employ the capacity we have for compassionate, altruistic behavior?

Religious historian Karen Armstrong reminds us, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

In her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong takes a pragmatic approach to a spiritual practice.  Compassion is not merely some nicety to believe in, but a way of acting in the world. She defines compassion simply as that universal principle commonly referred to as the Golden Rule.

Formulated by the Chinese sage Confucius 500 years before the Common Era on the other side of the world from where Jesus would have learned it in his own religious tradition, the Way (dao) or Summary of the Law (in Torah) are both summed up in love of neighbor (and God); just as you would want for your self. Armstrong:

(From its Greek and Latin roots) compassion means “to endure [something] with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel their pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into their point of view. (Compassion) asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.”

Armstrong lays out a roadmap to follow for those interested in learning to live a more compassionate life: through an understanding of what compassion is (and isn’t), a clear view

of what the world around us really looks like, how to start with a little compassion for one’s self, then empathy for others, mindfulness for our actions, an acknowledgment that we cannot really completely know the other so withhold judgment, how we should (and shouldn’t) speak to one another, how compassion is all-inclusive and knows no bounds, most especially with our need to love our enemies.

Like all spiritual disciplines, it is fraught with the limitations of its practitioners; namely, you and I, who are a work in progress.

At the same time, Armstrong’s own global movement launched only a few years ago, Charter for Compassion, has spread like a wildfire. Globally, thousands and thousands of individuals and organizations have ascribed to the charter, a document that “transcends religious, ideological, and national differences … and activates the Golden Rule around the world.”  [see]

Of particular note is the fact that a vast number of individuals and organizations to partner with this movement have no overt religious identity or affiliation themselves.  The capacity of compassion is a universal principle to be affirmed. The compunction of compassion is the perspective from which one might simply understand the source that partners with us and compels us to act; what some of us would might call the sacred divine.


I began with a review of one week’s headlines, the response of the crowds to the twisted ideas of some flawed human beings; one a mass murderer in Norway, the other an international terrorist dispatched to the bottom of the sea.  And there remains the fierce battle being waged in the highest court in the land, because we haven’t been able to figure out a way to quell the fighting along an arbitrary border that divides one tribe from another.

We’ve asked where, in each instance, has there been any compassionate response within the larger conversation?  Does that incomplete feeling that forever lingers following all our unresolved debates and battles suggest we have yet to find a way to live more compassionate lives?


Julian, Alex and Juan


In the big picture, I’d like to think throwing out every rule but one could save the world.  I’m a pessimist heartily in favor of enforcing the Golden Rule.  I’d prefer we try a little harder to treat others as we would like to be treated, and fail trying; than maintain our predominant behavior that has little hope of anything more than our current miserable circumstances.  But that is almost too overwhelming a prospect.  Some might say it would be miraculous.

So instead I turn to the examples described again and again in those gospel stories of ordinary people in their ordinary lives; where little miracles might be experienced and promoted with modest feats of compassion.

So last week I turned my attention away from the headlines to spend a day with two laborers who I hire once a year to trim my two large mulberry trees that grow like giant weeds.  Their names are Julian and Alex.  My name is Juan.

Julian speaks just enough English for us to communicate, but Alex can only smile and grunt in my own native tongue.  Julian climbs and cuts, following my directions, while Alex clears away the debris on the ground.

“Bueno! Si! Si!” I shout to Julian, as he scampers from branch to branch, forty feet in the air. For eight hours they work hard for what I pay them.

It’s a hot day, the kind of day when the heat saps your energy and the flying wood chips stick to the sweat on your neck.  I keep the guy’s thirst quenched. But Alex acts surprised when I put on work gloves and join him, working shoulder to shoulder, to keep up with the branches raining down on us from above.

When lunchtime comes, they wash up a bit as I set the table and prepare the meal.  I serve them as if they are honored guests, and they gobble down the food until they are satisfied; at least for today.  Alex sits eating in silent gratitude, but Julian likes to chatter with an accent so strong I can hardly make out every third word.

He talks of how slow work has been, how he has trouble keeping up with the child support for his two kids.  He tells me how he’d like to return with his family to Mexico if they could, but even if he found a menial job, without an education there wouldn’t be enough income to live on.

I tell him I admire his strength and agility with the skill he has acquired with his chainsaw and pruner, and he nods with a sense of appreciation.  And that’s as far as it goes. Even the tip I give them over and above their day’s wages won’t go that far, I know.

I thought to myself, it’s hard to imagine what kind of a future lies ahead for these two characters.  What will happen to them when their backs give out and the years of hard labor take their toll? I don’t pity them; but I cannot help but feel a sense of compassion for them, and a none-too-subtle reminder that there, but for fortune, go I

I spent a day working alongside the unlikeliest of brothers. I spent a day in their shoes, treating them, I hope, as I would want to be treated myself.


© 2012 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

1 Comment

  1. Randy Thomas /

    Excellent well crafted article JB. I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s book you referenced as well as the Charter for Compassion. … Compassion indeed is universal, affirms the goodness of our humanity, and may be one of the spiritual principles if actively practiced, can sustain our survival in the future. I have learned something about compassion from the Buddhist tradition which extends compassion to all sentient beings on the planet. … Cultivating and practicing compassion helps us realize the common ground of our humanity, the gift of God’s Mercy and a more Conscious and Loving Way of Being-in-the world. Thank you for this article.

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