I was reminded this morning* of the etymology of “compassion”: com- meaning “with” and pati meaning “to suffer.” It’s the same pati we find in the word passion, and sort-of related to the Greek pathos, as in “sympathy,” “to feel with.”**
Compassion, like physical pain, alerts us to the presence of something harmful (in this case in the lives of other people), and motivates us to alleviate or end it. It works as a torch (highlighting something important), a compass (showing us something we should do) and a moral and emotional cattle-prod (driving us to action).
The challenge is that – as with physical pain – compassion can be dulled or masked: fatigue sets in and we stop feeling it so acutely, or we allow ourselves to be anaesthetised by distractions.
It can be a good to develop tolerance for physical pain when discomfort is a sign of progress (as in exercise) or when the pain is temporary (so we can mask it until it goes away), or if the pain is chronic and simply can’t be fixed.
But in most cases losing sensitivity to pain is disastrous: people who can’t feel pain often end up cutting, burning, or breaking themselves irreparably without even knowing what’s happening until it’s too late.
Question for self:
When was the last time you were moved to action by compassion? It’s a reflex you’ll need to practise to preserved.
*Thanks to Marc
**Limited etymological research alert. Please correct or refine this definition if it needs it!