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.