I'm reading
The other kind of love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The other kind of love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The other kind of love
Pass it on
Pass it on
1 March 2018

The other kind of love

Compassion is human love at its noblest, because it’s the form of love that gives without any expectation of receiving.

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Crew on Unsplash

Ah, love. It’s one of those words, isn’t it? We routinely use it to refer to romantic passion, or the bonds of familial affection, or close friendship, or even our emotional response to music, food, travel, pets, or poetry. We can say, “I love your scarf” with the same kind of intensity as when we say, “I will love you forever.”

Because “love” is such a carry-all word, it’s open to endless misinterpretation. The very power of it—the charm of it—creates the potential for all kinds of misunderstandings. “Love you!” we might chirrup, as a light-hearted way of ending a phone call—rather like the affectionate little ‘x’ we add in a text to someone we’d never dream of kissing. Yet even those apparently innocent signals can cause trouble if the person they’re addressed to is hoping for some sign of a more heavily-freighted kind of love.

Mostly, we think of love as being about our feelings of affection for someone or something. But there’s an equally potent form of love that has nothing to do with our emotional state at all. It’s the kind of love that makes sense of the idea that you could love someone you don’t actually like very much, or someone you violently disagree with. It can even make sense of the idea that you could love your enemies.

The best way to describe this kind of love is to say it’s motivational rather than emotional; it’s about how we choose to act towards other people, regardless of how we feel about them.

A better word for it might be compassion—that wonderful human capacity to act with respect, kindness and charity, not selectively, but as a general rule; a mental discipline; a way of life. It’s a commitment to the idea that I will approach every encounter with another person respectfully and with a disposition to show kindness towards them. (If you’ve mastered the art of compassion, you can even terminate a relationship kindly).

Although compassion might sometimes spring from feelings of pity, or sympathy or concern, we don’t have to depend on those feelings to trigger the compassionate response. Compassion is not about attraction, or even about the enjoyment we might experience in the presence of someone we love romantically, or with whom we share an enduring friendship. It’s not about desire, either—except, perhaps, the desire to make the world a better place.

This does not mean it’s the province of saints or martyrs, by the way: it can be found all over the world in the everyday lives of mere mortals like you and me.

Romantic love sweeps us away. The love of family and friends wraps us in reassurance about who we are and where we belong. But compassion is human love at its noblest, because it’s the form of love that gives without any expectation of receiving; a gift with no strings attached. It’s a sign that we acknowledge our common humanity.

In contemporary Australian society, that selfless kind of love is in shorter supply than it used to be, because, like most Western societies, we are in the grip of a rampant individualism, linked to an equally rampant materialism—a toxic combination that feeds the mad idea, “It’s all about me.” In that atmosphere, it’s easy to overlook the deepest truth about us: that, like most species on the planet, we are essentially social beings who need communities to nurture, sustain, support and protect us. That’s why most of us live as we do—in villages, towns, suburbs and cities, where we form sustainable neighbourhoods and communities.

Sure, there are hermits and social isolates who don’t enjoy human company much, but even they rely on a community to build roads and bake bread for them. The truth about most of us is that, although we need bursts of solitude, being cut off from the herd is a bad state for us to be in (no wonder solitary confinement is the harshest punishment we inflict on prisoners).

But here’s the beautiful symmetry of the human condition: while we need communities to sustain us if we are to survive and prosper, those communities in turn need us to engage with them if they are to survive and prosper. And compassion is the engine that drives our engagement.

It makes more sense for us to co-operate rather than compete: in fact, our survival as a species depends on it. That’s why we act altruistically towards people who need our help, and it’s why we don’t hesitate to offer assistance to people affected by a natural disaster, or someone hurt in an accident, or a lost child, or a frail elderly person who is bewildered or frightened. We don’t stop to think “What’s in it for me?” or “Do I like this person enough to help them?” No, we simply respond to the need.

It is normal for humans to show compassion towards each other, because, in the end, we are each other. Although we like to think of ourselves as independent, we are more like islands in the sea—separate on the surface, but connected to each other deep down. We are all part of the greater whole. The differences between us are endlessly interesting—and can be fascinating, charming, irritating or infuriating—but the most significant thing about us is the similarities between us, arising from our common humanity.

If we were to lose that sense of human connectedness, we would risk losing our sense of compassion. Then we would stop living as if we need each other, though we do. We would fail to recognise that our own mental health depends on the health of the communities we belong to, though it does. We would lose sight of the fact that a good life can only be a life lived for others, though that’s all it can ever be. (How else can you make sense of the idea of a good life? You can’t be good on your own: goodness is inherently about responding to other people’s need of our kindness, charity, compassion, respect. Our love.)

Compassion lowers our anxiety level by releasing us from the trap of self-absorption. It encourages our tolerance of difference. It generates a disposition to be kind and non-judgemental, and that’s good for everyone. Compassionate people are more likely to forgive those who have wronged or offended them, and the act of forgiveness is therapeutic both for the forgiver and the forgiven.

Compassion changes everything. It encourages us to build a better society by responding to bad behaviour with good behaviour, and by setting an example of kindness and respect, especially when it would be easier to give in to negative impulses like revenge and hate.

Falling in love is wonderful but, alas, all too fleeting. The impact of this other kind of love goes on and on.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.


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