Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!
When I was a volunteer just starting doing benefits tribunals, some of us met up in Edinburgh to discuss our cases. Each would start by describing the client’s situation, and each time a woman would drawl, “How Ahful! AHful!” I did not know who she was, she made no other contribution that I could see, and I hated her: we were taking practical action, and she seemed to be enjoying the feelings we evoked, even getting a mild high.
Compassion is seeking to change the situation, but it starts with the feeling. Only the feeling would motivate me to action.
I was driving home from a dance, and heard on the midnight news that Rwandan troops had attacked a Hutu refugee camp, which I later heard had been thought to harbour the Interahamwe. I screamed. News can be horrible, more likely producing a depressive apathetic withdrawal, but sometimes it gets under my skin. There was nothing I could do: I was doing good in the world elsewhere, and had to be satisfied with that.
I saw a beggar yesterday, who asked for money for food, and I refused her. I feel a similar depressive reaction, cutting off feeling from action.
Swanston does not have a homeless shelter, but when the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing three nights in a row a temporary shelter opens in the churches. Liz volunteers there. Three people came in, and after they closed their doors at 10pm the police brought in a Romanian man who had been working on building sites and had been attacked and injured while homeless. He is entitled to nothing. Later, the police called: they had stopped someone from jumping from a great height, and they wondered if the shelter could take him in. The volunteers discussed it, and decided they did not have the necessary mental health skills. There was nowhere else for the police to send him. We do what we can.
I feel more than I feel able to do.