Saturday 5 November 2022

Love and Compassion

Love and compassion are often confused these days but they are not the same thing and it is important to distinguish between the two or love will be reduced to compassion and thereby diminished considerably.

Compassion is usually directed towards suffering, seeking to relieve that or, at least, support the one who suffers. This means it is focussed on what a person is experiencing here and now. It responds to what a person is.

Love aims to encourage a person towards realising what he could and should be. It doesn't necessarily support the person as he is now, enabling that person to be happy and not suffer in his current state. It may even see that suffering is what is necessary to move that person on to a better, more evolved place, a place in which he is more what he should be. This implies that we are not all right as we are now. There is something we should be growing towards. Love is directed towards realising that.

There is no love outside of God. He is the source of love and what our love should be principally directed towards. Without him love would not exist. (Nor would anything, of course, but that's a different matter.) If God is love does he not love us? And yet we suffer. How can this be? It is because God loves us that we suffer. I am not saying he causes it but he allows it and he does so in order that we may become more like him. Love wants the good of the beloved. Good is spiritual. There is no good without the spiritual. Therefore love is always pushing for spiritual growth. Compassion would leave a person where he is, only removing the suffering, but love wants to bring a person up to where happiness is exchanged for joy and compassion/empathy for divine love. Compassion would heal the pain of material suffering. Love wants the caterpillar to become a butterfly even if that hurts.

Note: The point here is not that you should have love instead of compassion. You should have both but compassion should be seen in the light of love not in its own light.


Unknown said...

If human suffering is primarily spiritual, which I think it is, then true compassion would have a spiritual goal - and religions that put compassion at the center rather than love, certainly have a spiritual goal.

I've always found silly the distinction between Christianity and Buddhism in relation to their goals, in which Buddhism "merely" wants to relieve suffering - broadly defined, "suffering" is what all religions want to rescue us from, because for us the highest suffering is spiritual unfulfillment, failing to achieve our true spiritual end.

Indeed, the early Church was much more explicit about this, and called the Church a hospital and Jesus a medicine, and sin was seen much more fortuitously as a "missing of the mark", rather than the later unfortunate devolvement into seeing sin as deliberate evil.

As for Buddhism and compassion based traditions, if it envisioned an end to suffering as anything less than ultimate spiritual fulfillment, it would have counseled simply suicide! Buddhism even mocks becoming a God, with all the power and good fortune that implies, and certainly freedom from mere suffering, as a mere subsidiary goal, and not ultimate spiritual fulfillment.

I feel much writing on religion these days is not done "spiritually" - we make basic mistakes by being over-literal and failing to really look at the full picture. I blame the habit of scientific thinking - it has atrophied our ability to see "context". McGillchrist discusses this well.

I think love is more all encompassing than compassion, and compassion is a subset of love.

But in practice the two are often indistinguishable - the compassion of the Bodhisattva who refuses a well earned Nirvana to return again and again to liberate all sentient beings, which includes all animals and even mountains and rivers, is practically indistinguishable from all encompassing Christian love, especially if, like me, you believe ultimately God abandons no one and saves all, even Satan, and all the animals, as the great St Isaac the Syrian said.

Unknown said...

That being said, I think Love is a better single term for the spiritual life - probably the best single term.