One view is that people act with compassion because of a future benefit to themselves. For example they hope for the reward of heaven or the prize of good karma. However, I would ask, is it not possible for one to feel selfless compassion for the sake of those in need rather than for any advantage to oneself?
If you doubt that this is possible, just read a book like the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. This is an amazing true story about the Anand Nagar slum in Calcutta in the 1970’s. Based on thorough research, including two hundred interviews in various languages, it has a fascinating authentic ring.
The reader discovers the plight of peasants who came from famine-struck rural areas in India. Death from malnutrition was a very real possibility. They slept on the city streets and, if they were lucky, worked very long hours in appalling conditions to scrape together survival rations.
I found this to be a tough book to read but it demands the reader’s attention. Its power comes from the vivid detailed non-stop descriptions of the terrible hardship yet compassion of the inhabitants. There are amazing accounts of a generosity of spirit of those, themselves, in dire need.
Head of a Muslim family, Mehboub lived with his wife, 4 children and his mother in a single room, six feet by four, with no window, water or electricity. He was a wiry, muscular little man in his thirties with shaggy eyebrows. After 14 years of employment at the naval yard, it was no longer possible to put off giving him a contract of employment. And so he was laid off. With no income, this sturdy man began to waste away. His stomach racked with hunger, he walked miles each day in search of any way of earning a crust of bread. The family had to survive on the 20 rupees that the eldest boy, only aged 10, earned each month in a sweat shop. There, the child for 12 hours per day, dipped the clips for ballpoint pens into a chrome bath, whilst inhaling toxic vapours from the metal under electrolysis.
At night, when the cries of his youngest daughter’s empty stomach could not be distracted with a song or story, Mehboub would take her in his arms and go into the neighbouring courtyard to beg for a piece of chapatti. A poor person would never close his door to him. Despite their desperate lives, they helped each other when they could. That level of compassion was often found among these extremely poor people. Perhaps, if you have experienced help, you acquire a sense a duty to help others in the same plight as yourself.
Blind Christian widow
The blind widow was so thin that her shrivelled skin accentuated the angles of her bones. Leprosy had reduced her hands to stumps and eaten away her face. In a corner of her room, her four grandchildren, aged between two and six years, slept on a piece of threadbare matting. Her neighbours were all extremely poor Hindu. Yet, everyday they took turns bringing this Christian woman a dish of rice and vegetables, helping her wash, doing her housework, looking after her grandchildren. Helping someone in need because of wanting what is best for them is loving others as oneself. This broken woman suffered from no lack of love.
Bandona was four years old when her family set out for Calcutta. Five years later her father died. Alone, her mother brought up four children by retrieving metal objects from the rubbish heaps and selling them to a metal scrap dealer. From the age of twelve, after a two-hour bus ride and walking three miles, Bandona worked in a workshop that turned out parts for trucks. She went out at five o’clock in the morning and rarely got back before ten o’clock at night. Earning just four rupees a day, she become her family’s only support when her mother was struck down with tuberculosis. This was just enough to pay the rent and guarantee the family a bowl of rice or two chapatis once a day.
On Sundays and feast days, instead of resting, Bandona would prowl the slum looking for distressed people to help. She knew how to listen to the confessions of the dying, how to pray with the families of the dead, wash the corpses, or go with the deceased to the cemetery or the funeral pyre. No one had ever taught her, yet she knew it all through intuition derived from friendship and love. Her extraordinary capacity to communicate enabled her to go into any compound, any hut, and sit down among people without encountering any prejudice of caste or religion. When you really have compassion for others you have concern for their well-being more than your own comfort. This is an act of selfless love.
Source of compassion
Kind-heartedness and generosity may come naturally to many people but is not compassion that amounts to self-sacrifice, a gift? I believe it is a transforming one that can only come from the humanity of the Divine Being of Love.
“It is a great consolation for me to remember that the Lord, to whom I had drawn near in humble and child-like faith, has suffered and died for me, and that He will look on me in love and compassion.“ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composer)
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems