According to Wikipedia compassion is “…the emotion that one feels in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.” My wife has recently begun to tell people I am a very compassionate person. I have never felt that I was a compassionate person, and by that definition, I would say I am not.
I have a 96 year old father whom I have spent a lot time helping since my mother passed away in January 2014. I visit him for a short time most days, make sure his daily pill box is filled, keep his prescriptions up-to-date, call him in the evening to insure he remembers to go to dinner, take him to doctors, take him out to eat on occasion, deal with government agencies for him and have taken over managing all of his finances. All of this takes up a great deal of my time, but, does doing all this make me compassionate?
I really don’t feel compassionate. In many ways I have always been a bit cold emotionally and have not always felt empathy for others’ suffering. Having said that, I always try to do what I believe to be the “right thing.” I have a desire to be able to look myself in the mirror after my father passes away and tell myself that I did the right things for him. I do these things because they need to be done, and there is no else to do them. I do these things because I believe that this is what a moral person should do. Deep down inside I don’ feel a desire to help in response to his suffering. Is that compassion? Is it compassion when you do the right thing for the wrong reason?
On Seinfeld, the great philosopher George Costanza once said, “Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie…if you believe it…” Perhaps the inverse reasoning applies here. Perhaps I’m not compassionate because I don’t believe I’m compassionate. Am I truly doing this for my father, or for myself? Does it even matter? Is it the end result that matters rather than the motivation? I don’t have an answer, and perhaps there is not a true answer. The last little bit I do need to chew on is that my father does not know my motivations, nor will he ever. Perhaps letting him form his own belief on why I help, is, in the end, an act of compassion….
One of the more liberating things I read, a long time ago, was that “good” people are those who do good things, rather than those who don’t have bad thoughts. People can’t control their thoughts – they’re a result of one’s upbringing, heredity, and the particular context a person finds him/herself in. But people *can* (to a large extent, most of the time) control their *actions*. Some people think they need to go to (Catholic) confession because they have bad thoughts, or simply think of themselves as being bad because they have such thoughts. I think they’re wrong.
In short: bad thoughts do not make people bad, their actions do; good thoughts are not necessary to be good, good actions are.