OPINION: Beyond compassion

Tin Bartolome — Hopechest

Posted at Nov 09 2017 09:15 PM

To have compassion for someone usually means to have sympathy for, to have pity on, which is confirmed by a quick search on the internet. Such a search also comes up with “pagkahabag”, “awa” and even “hinayang” as Tagalog translations. Synonyms include empathy, fellow feeling, care, concern and so many more. But what does having compassion for someone really mean? What does it ask of the person who feels it?

While it is easy for us to consider giving donations, counsel or simply taking pity on as compassion, the Latin words from which the word comes indicate it’s more than that. In The Foolishness of Compassion, Antioch Network city missionary Jeff Skeens says: "For many of us, when real opportunities of compassion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain, or frozen by feelings of not being able to do anything about the situation, so we often never enter into compassion." Skeens explains that the Latin words from which compassion comes actually mean “to suffer with”. Hence, if you merely take pity or simply donate, then that means you refuse to suffer with the person you are reaching out to.

I am reminded of what we are taught as pastoral counseling trainees: primary level empathy, which, according to Sutton and Stewart, entails active listening or responding to the facts and expressed feelings. This means that as a counselor, one does not stay where he is and just feels sad for the counselee. The counselor actually “suffers with” the counselee, but precisely because he is in a better position than the counselee, he is able to take the counselee’s hand towards a decision which the counselee, in the words of Fr. Ruben M. Tanseco, SJ, is one that he “can live with, die for and face his God with”. 

But compassion being what it is, I believe that “suffering with” means we do not just drop that hand and go our separate ways. In short, compassion in counseling means at the very least, being of help to the counselee who is now vulnerable in a different way even after a life decision has been made. Compassion for a counselee who was a battered wife may entail referral to an institution that could help her achieve some level of financial independence.

This thought has, in turn, led to me to consider the sacrament of confession which has made me wonder since I was in high school, why penance hardly ever includes direct restitution or actually facing the person wronged to say sorry. As it goes, we confess having hurt a person and because Father Confessor says we are forgiven, we forget to make the effort to allow the person we hurt to feel better by acknowledging our error. It is often easier for us to just pay it forward and do a good deed for someone else than to be humble enough to apologize.

Speaking of apologies, I noticed how tables are turned when the person apologizing feels that there is an obligation on the part of his victim to forgive. Does one forgive even if the person saying sorry does not mean it? Doesn’t saying sorry mean making the effort not to do it again? Does this not entail taking a closer look at the wrongdoing so it can later be prevented? Hasn’t saying sorry somehow reached the level of the usual greeting: “How are you?”—nothing more than a pleasant thing to say but not really meaning or caring enough to know how the person really is. 

I still wonder whether an insincere “I am sorry” for cheating in elections is better than saying nothing at all, or worse, justifying summary executions or even plundering the nation’s coffers.

So, compassion means so much more than taking pity—it’s more than feeling bad for a person and perhaps, so much more than “suffering with”. Compassion need not end with being a feeling or a ritualistic act that does not recognize, much less, honor the one we feel it for. While suffering with someone in pain can cause miracles to happen, imagine what purposeful, helpful acts can do!

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.