THE HERESY OF COMPASSION
What’s love got to do with it? (2004)
of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the
things you can’t count, really count." - Albert
In the science-fiction film THX-1138 by George Lucas, the
greatest crime was to fall in love, an offence punishable
by death. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston Smith’s
downfall begins with his romance with another prole.
Throughout world literature, art and mythology, love is
often portrayed as running contrary to power. It doesn’t
come easy much of the time, whether it’s in stories or in
Mythologist Joseph Campbell held that romantic love, as we
know it today, originated with the Renaissance, when
family-arranged marriages fell into decline. With the
individual becoming "the measure of all things," a reversal
occurred in the sentiments of the West. In a 1986
interview, Campbell noted that "the word AMOR spelt
backwards is ROMA, the Roman Catholic Church," a body that
justified marriages "that were simply political and social
in their character."
Love is a state of mind that lies outside the jurisdiction
of the temple, the marketplace and the empire. It can
undercut allegiance to status, wealth and privilege. To be
in love is, in a way, an involuntary act of protest,
signaling the primacy of two hearts over any given
Eros is the desire of the flesh. Amor is the desire for the
other. Agape is spiritual love, the love for the neighbour,
the community, reflecting a desire to connect with a larger
sense of being and purpose. It’s also known as compassion.
This state of mind runs further afield than
person-to-person love. It can extend to those we’ve never
met and never will meet, and even to non-human creatures.
Several years ago, a friend told me a story of meeting up
with an acquaintance he had not seen since high school, who
managed a small shop. She told him of her history, how
she’d fallen in with a bad crowd in her teen years, ending
up living in the States as a high-price call girl. She
claimed that half her clients eventually broke down in her
arms and cried. The encounter ended there.
These men weren’t after sex, or even love necessarily. They
wanted penetration of a deeper sort. They hungered for
compassion and the freedom to be vulnerable enough to
Buddhism, along with the three great monotheistic
religions, sets great stock on empathy and understanding.
In the secular world, compassion is valued for smoothing
the hard edges of daily life. Yet it’s a state of mind that
has been implicitly devalued in the theology of free-market
economists, where freedom of choice and self-advancement
are the focus of worship.
Economic experts tell us that market relations are prior
to, and above and beyond, other social values. In this
view, overanxious concern for the welfare of others is
mostly a waste of time. Enlightened self-interest, taking
compassion’s place like a cuckoo’s egg, will hatch all
sorts of solutions to human suffering. We’re told to just
give it time.
We’ve had 20-some years of this cultural programming, and
the effects on psyches are becoming apparent. In his
acerbic 2001 memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate
People, British author Toby Young describes his five-year
stint with Vanity Fair, the high-end New York lifestyle
magazine. Young alludes to the portrayal of bittersweet
romance in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, a
fictional world light-years away from the zeitgeist of his
colleagues. He concludes that "the current generation of
New York journalists - the contemporary equivalent of the
characters portrayed by Clark Gable, James Stewart and Cary
Grant - don’t fare very well."
"During the five years I spent in Manhattan," he writes, "I
had a sense of encountering people who weren’t quite human.
This became apparent in any number of ways. One of the most
striking was the overwhelming similarity of everyone I met,
as if they all came off the same production line; they
lacked that divine spark which makes all human beings
unique... It sounds dreadful to say it, but it was as
though they didn’t have souls."
That’s a pretty extreme statement, yet I don’t think Young
is just being provocative or bloody-minded. His hive-mind
New Yorkers may sound like characters out of a John Wyndham
novel, but they’re not pod people, and they’re not limited
to the US East Coast, either. I’ve met these types plenty
of times. They represent Homo sapiens careerist: a harried
creature with his or her nose to the grindstone and a
finger to the wind.
These types often appear to be going through life on
autopilot. Even their "spontaneity" has a rehearsed
feeling. They aren’t exactly soulless, but their souls
often seem asleep.
No doubt there are a number of reasons for what seems to be
a flattening of affect among North American professionals.
In these overworked, over-stimulated times, many of us
withdraw from those most potent, problematic sources of
information - other human beings. In this state of mental
and emotional retreat, compassion becomes so much
collateral damage (the ë90s gave us the expression
Without agape, what chance is there for amor? I find myself
sometimes wondering if our urban tribes are incrementally
losing the capacity to express love, or to even experience
it to any great depth. And I don’t mean simply romantic
love. Many people have told me how they find deep
friendships are rare or impermanent in this part of the
Here’s the rub: deep friendship and romantic entanglement
depend on an ability to transcend the self, but the self is
the ultimate temple in the modern age. In the Church of Me,
there can only be one Pope.
In defining ourselves, we use the abstract benchmarks of
money, status and power, bled of their grounding in
community. In this cultural climate, love and even
compassion can seem like foreign states of mind.
Remember "compassionate conservatism?" In the US,
officially-sanctioned caring rarely registers more than a
blip on the public relations radar, except when it is used
to sell a war - on poverty, drugs, or the consumer’s mind.
Or a war on those unlucky enough to occupy the rogue state
If the collective unconscious has caught some kind of
soul-sickness, the output of the culture industry is
symptomatic. Big-budget films, music, art and fiction
rarely do more than travel from sentimentality to nihilism.
When love is portrayed at all in the media, it’s often
cartoonish and juvenile. Romantic love is increasingly
denatured and commodified, to be packaged into blind date
episodes or the 30-second parables of advertising.
The naive pop culture of previous generations may seem
laughable, but I’m old enough to prefer the white bread
faux-innocence of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With
Anyone Else But Me to the hip-hop street cred of Bitch Be a
The old cliche holds that art mirrors life, but like all
cliches, there is more than a grain of truth here. It may
not be an exaggeration to say that market relations have
declared war on human relations. Yet, even if this is the
case, this planet-plundering ethos cannot erase compassion
without eliminating the human species entirely. Even though
compassion may appear to be wilting, it has deep roots.
Small acts of kindness are committed every day, and great
acts of selflessness are not unknown, even among the
In his 1986 interview with Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers
related the tale of a policeman in Hawaii who saves the
life of a drowning man, while losing his own. He wondered
how it can be that one person gives his life so freely for
that of a stranger.
Campbell responded by referring to an essay by the German
philosopher Schopenhauer, in which he asks how it is that a
human being can so participate in the peril and pain of
another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices
his own life. "How can it be that the first law of nature
and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?"
Campbell continues: "Schopenhauer’s answer is that such a
psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a
metaphysical realization, which is that you and the other
are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that
your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we
experience forms under the conditions of space and time.
Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.
This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously
realized under circumstances of crisis. For it is,
according to Schopenhauer, the truth of your life."
The philosopher’s ideas were informed by his reading of
eastern religions. Albert Einstein, a follower of the
pantheist thinker Spinoza, said very much the same thing.
"A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and
feelings, as something separated from the rest - a sort of
optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind
of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires
and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task
must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our
circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all
living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
When someone asked Gandhi how he could sacrifice himself so
completely for India, he replied, "I do this for myself
alone. When we serve others we serve ourselves." The
Upanishads call this "God feeding God."
Cynics may regard this as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo,
but such fierce allegiance to others is an every day
reality to parents. What mother wouldn’t sacrifice her life
for that of her child? We would think her something of a
monster if she wasn’t willing to do so.
We can argue about the source of this selflessness, whether
it’s engineered by the genes or conjured up by some greater
source of being (or even if the two are necessarily
mutually exclusive). But it’s undeniable that this
archetypal mother-child relationship, the primary ground
for all healthy connections through compassion, is
extremely robust, no matter what the cultural or economic
Compassion is not always easy, however. Many of us can see
the self reflected in the eyes of a relative, a lover and
even those of a stranger. More difficult is to extend
compassion into alien territory, to find some kind of
identity with the enemy. In his 2000 book After the
Ecstasy, the Laundry, writer Jack Kornfield describes a
conversation he had on a train to Philadelphia with an
African-American man, who ran a rehabilitation program for
juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia.
He tells the author of a 14-year-old boy in the program,
who shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself
to his gang.
At the trial, the victim’s mother sat and said nothing,
until the very end, when the youth was convicted of the
killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up
slowly and staring directly at him, said "I’m going to kill
you." The youth was then led off to serve several years in
the juvenile facility.
Kornfield describes how after the first six months the
mother of the slain teenager went to visit the killer. He’d
been homeless before the killing, and she was his only
visitor. They talked, and when she left she gave him money
to buy cigarettes. She visited him again and then on a
regular basis, each time bringing food and small items. As
the end of his three-year sentence approached, she asked
him what he planned to do when he got out. He was scared
and uncertain because of his few options, so she offered to
get him a low-level position at a friend’s business.
Then she asked where he would live, and since he had no
family to return to, she offered temporary use of a spare
room in her home.
From Kornfield’s book: For eight months the boy lived
there, ate her food and worked at the job. Then one evening
she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down
opposite him and waited. Then she asked, "you remember in
the court when I said I was going to kill you?" "I sure
do," he replied. "I’ll never forget that moment."
"Well, I did," she went on. "I did not want the boy who
could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this
I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit here and
bring new things. That’s why I started to visit you and
bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you
live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you.
And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, as
my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay
here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let
me." And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the
mother he never had."
Compassion of a superhuman sort? There is something
Buddhists call idiot-compassion; feeling love for someone
while they beat you to a pulp is probably inadvisable. Many
of us would think this mother’s act quite impossible for
any normal person or ourselves. But there was a payoff for
her here: in the attempt to "kill" the teenage boy through
compassion, she liberated herself from years of grief and
bitterness. (We aren’t told how and if she transformed
To follow the path of compassion doesn’t mean we passively
acquiesce in evil, but it does mean an unwillingness to use
the enemy’s means when practising resistance. To quote
Gandhi again, "The question is no longer between violence
and non-violence, it’s between non-violence and
With all the forces of chaos and discord raging across the
world like wildfire, the greatest act of noncompliance is
to find deep connection to the worlds beyond the
"skin-encapsulated ego," both within and without. This is
what makes love so subversive, and compassion so
revolutionary; their power to heal, to bring together, to