October 11, 2010
Compassion To Enhance Quality of Life
Ernest H. Rosenbaum, MD
Compassion involves an emotion that considers the feelings and circumstances of others. It is how we feel towards our fellow men and how we act to support them during difficult times of trial.
Compassion is the feeling of giving of yourself: your warm inner strength, to help sustain another. It can be a sustaining power that helps a loved one or friend acquire the strength to continue to fight in whatever struggle or illness he is undergoing for the preservation of himself. It is the kindness we give not only to humans but also to animals and especially to those we love.
An example is that of Androcles and the lion. Although Androcles was himself cruelly mistreated as a slave, he felf compassion for another's pain, and he was able to put himself in another's shoes and by such an act gained his freedom, through his kindness.
Androcles was a poor Roman slave, whose cruel taskmaster had been so mean to him that he ran away. He grew faint, weak, and ill in the forest, and crept into a cave, where he fell asleep. A great roar awakened him, as a lion had come into the cave, and he thought he was about to be killed and eaten by the lion. When he noted that the lion was limping, he had the courage to hold the lion's paw and took out a sharp thorn that was causing the lion's pain. The lion, in his gratitude, licked the hands and feet of his friend, Androcles, and when night came, the lion slept by his side. The lion brought him food, and the new friends enjoyed brief happiness.
Androcles was captured by Roman soldiers and taken back to Rome, where his punishment was to fight a hungry lion. At the Coliseum, thousands of people came for sport, and Androcles was almost dead when he was brought to the arena, adding to his fear from the roar of the lions. The lion rushed in, saw Androcles, and recognized his old friend, who had befriended him. Androcles put his arms around the lion's neck, and the lion laid down and licked his feet and enjoyed being petted.
No one could understand until Androcles told the story of the thorn in the lion's foot and how he had befriended the lion. He then said, I am a man, whom no man has befriended. This poor lion alone has been kind to me, and we love each other like brothers. The cry of the people in the Coliseum was, Live and be free! Live and be free! Others said, Let the lion go free too, and give them their liberty. So, they were both set free, and they lived together in Rome for many years.1
The same could be said of the favorite childhood story, Beauty and the Beast.
A final example is King Croesus, a king in Asia and the richest man in the world. He thought wealth could make him happy, and the statement was coined, as rich as Croesus.
Not only did he have a beautiful house and garden, but slaves, and fine clothes, and was both comfortable and content, and thought he was the happiest man in the world. He was visited by Solon, who was traveling through Asia and was known not only as a lawmaker in Athens, but was considered the wisest person in the world. There was a phrase, He is wise as Solon, which was a compliment for someone you thought was very smart.
Croesus invited Solon to dinner and asked him the question, Who do you think is the happiest man in the world? After a few minutes of thought, Solon, instead of saying that it was Croesus, said Tellus. When asked why, he told the story of Tellus, who was a man who labored very hard to bring up his children and gave them a good education. When they grew up, he joined the Athenian army and died in defense of his country. Solon then asked, Can you think of anyone, who is more deserving of true happiness? With some disappointment, Croesus said, Tell me who ranks next to Tellus. Solon talked of two young men in Greece, whose father died when they were children and were very poor. Year after year, they worked at hard labor to maintain the house and support their mother, who was in poor health, until she died. The children gave all their love to their native city and served Athens until the time that they died.
Croesus was now not only unhappy but angry and asked the question, Why do you give no account of me and my wealth and power? Are they nothing? How can you rank these poor people better than me, my wealth, and my power, as I am the richest king in the world? Solon then answered, No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die. For no man knows what misfortune may overtake you and what misery may be yours in place of this splendor.
Many years later, King Cyrus marched through country after country, conquering, pillaging, killing and annexing these countries to his Babylonian empire. Because of his wealth and army, King Croesus was able to resist, but then his city was taken, and his palace, orchards, and treasures were destroyed or carried away. As a penalty for his stubbornness and resistance, he was ordered to be made an example of and was taken to the marketplace, where he was to be burned alive. Just before the fire was lit, Croesus, bleeding, bruised, and without a friend to comfort him, remembered the words that Solon had spoken, No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die.
Croesus moaned, Oh, Solon!
King Cyrus was riding by and heard these moans and asked of his soldiers, Is he saying, Solon, Solon, Solon? When the answer was, Yes, he rode up to Croesus and asked why he was calling the name of Solon.
Croesus initially was silent, but with the question being repeated, he told about Solon's visit to his palace a long time ago. The story affected Cyrus deeply, and when he thought of the words, No one knows what misfortune may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor, he wondered whether he might also lose his power and be helpless in the midst of enemies. Cyrus then said, Ought not men to be merciful and kind to those, who are in distress? I will do to Croesus as I would have others do to me. He gave Croesus his freedom and ever after treated him as an honored friend.2
These examples of compassion reflect that kindness is a gift to be given freely, as one wishes another to be kind to you. If one delays or procrastinates the giving of such a gift, one may find it is too late, as life is often too short. Thus, when the opportunity arises to do an act, give a kindness, or show compassion, one should not tarry, or one may have regret and heartache.
In some respects, showing mercy or compassion can make us closer to God through our actions rather than through our words.
Another example would in be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge falls on his knees with fear after seeing Marley's ghost. Scrooge appreciates why spirits walk on earth and come to us, as a reminder that often the goals one seeks are the illusion. One can be doomed to just wander the world as a witness, which could have been happiness had one seized the opportunity. It is only with repentance that Scrooge finally softens.
It was the apparition of Marley, who held up his hand and warned Scrooge to come no closer, who exerted both surprise and fear in Scrooge, with the appreciation of regret and sorrow for what the future would be, and that he might be wearing chains like Marley's ghost and have no freedom.
It is the compassion that is engendered within us, as well as the pity we have for the suffering around us, and our duty to not only address the problem but also to help solve the problem. Scrooge had not learned enough yet as he closed the window and examined the door by which Marley's ghost came. It was double-locked, as he had done it with his own hands, and the bolts were not disturbed, and he said, Humbug! He stopped at the first syllable. From the emotions and fatigue from what he had just undergone, from his glimpse of the invisible world of the hereafter, and from the conversation with the ghost/apparition, he fell into bed without undressing and was instantly asleep.3
There is an even deeper form of compassion that is often felt as part of grief and pain in the loss of a loved one or from another's death. The tragedy of the loss of life was exhibited by Walt Whitman, following the Virginia battle of 1862, when he tended to the wounded of both sides as a volunteer nurse in an Army hospital, and wrote several poems to reflect his thoughts. One was known as Vigil Strange, I Kept on the Field One Night.4 He describes the death of two comrades on the field of battle and his vigil for his slain comrades. In the final two stanzas, he says,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket And buried him where he fell.
This is somewhat similar to Lincoln upon hearing of the Boston widow whose five sons had been killed fighting for the Union. Carl Sandburg described this agonizing letter with the awful implications of the fight for human freedom, which was more poignant than the Gettysburg Address. Sandburg stated, "As though he might be a ship captain at midnight by lantern light, dropping black roses into the immemorial sea for mystic remembrance and consecration." In his letter to Ms. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts, dated November 21, 1864, Lincoln said, "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine, which would attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolations that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only with the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be your! s to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."5
This was also reflected in Walt Whitman's poem, O Captain! My Captain!, and the words of Emma Lazarus in her poem, The New Colossus, which describes the Statue of Liberty.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning?
And her name, Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome;
Her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor
That twin cities frame.
Keep ancient lands,
Your storied pomp! she cries
With silent lips:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddles masses
Yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. 6
1-6- These stories were reported in part by William S. Bennett in The Book of Virtues, 1993, Simon and Shuster.
Reprinted by permission