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Compassion is the Main Course

Definition of compassion:  sympathetic consciousness of  others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

  –Merriam Webster

Is it a case of needing a bunch of new words and  definitions? The dictionary doesn’t help out much. The  compassion word is found attached to a dizzying array of meanings.

I read and hear it tossed around plenty, most often with no offer of help with the chef’s interpretation. Left to flounder, I usually skip even trying to figure it out – especially when mentioned in this kind of statement:


So-and-so lacks compassion.

My mind processes these words into, Blah, blah, blah. To make sense of it, I’ve created a meal out of my own ingredients. I’ll  throw in sympathy and empathy for a more examples of words with confusing, contradicting, and conflicting meanings. Here are my versions:


Sympathy: considering what others express from my own context.

Empathy: considering what others express from their context.


Where  sympathy or empathy, in the sense of the dictionary meanings, might interfere with clear thinking, people may respond with compassion. Medical professionals are responsible for the health and safety of many. They would be hard put to empathize or sympathize – as the dictionary defines the words – to any degree in the course of a typical day. While kindness is always welcome, it’s secondary to the chief aim: alleviating suffering, injury, and illness – taking the well being of each patient into regard in light of the best possible outcome.


It might not seem compassionate for those on the receiving end, but there’s usually a tacit understanding. Although the broken leg really hurts and  treatment may hurt even worse, the expectation is one of short term pain for long term gain.


It’s clear that the doctors, nurses and support staff are putting their energy into what matters most to any patient: restored health. And many view this goal as the main ingredient of compassion. Not getting help could be permanently crippling, and most will endure the smaller harm to avoid the larger one – could we call this self-compassion?


A Larger Compassionate Idea

Prescriptions are written to treat disease, reduce pain, or otherwise aim to improve quality of health. Taking medication controls or cures many conditions. Creating and making medicine available is widely considered as compassionate action.


Pharmaceuticals pass through the body and are eliminated. Most winds up at the municipal sewage treatment plant. Some drugs have toxic residues, and thousands, perhaps millions, of people contribute in this way to pollution that sewage treatment doesn’t, or only partially, removes. Some of these substances affect animals living in and near water adjacent to treatment plant release sites. Other animals feed on them and also might be affected. Some of the substances can wind up in drinking water supplies.


Really big picture compassion regards individual creatures or even sub-ecosystems in the context of:


What’s good for the planet comes first. Those who depend on it get what they get. Adaptation is the rule. Be quick and keep the goal in sight.

It might not be what the individual, or even huge groups, would prefer, but oh, well. Droughts, diseases and pests happen. Gentle rains, wild edibles and sunny, purifying, days do, too.



Smaller Picture Compassion – a Very Limited Diet


It’s accepted that icy roads must be dealt with. After all, poor road conditions lead to accidents, injury, even death. Extra energy directed at maintaining safety and productivity in general are also burdens. But the short-term benefits keep ice control at the top of the menu.


On the other hand, millions of tons of salt and other chemicals damage infrastructure and vehicles, contribute to pollution from mining activities, etc. The toxic substances leach into groundwater. Wells are contaminated. Affected ground water can poison the soil, seriously harming the ecosystem in stricken areas. In some places, leachate is moving towards –  or has already reached – freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds and streams.


There’s no practical way to clean things up at this time. With the top-heavy focus  on control, there are too few resources moving on finding viable solutions. The effect the de-icing stew has on wild life and drinking water supplies won’t cure itself. But the issue rarely makes it to the grocery list, much less to the dinner table discussion. How long will the short term gain over-ride the long term pain? Is this a key measure of compassion – the balancing of immediate goals against future consequences?



If a Common Definition and the Big Picture Came First …



The dictionary isn’t much help. Lack of a real, common meaning makes understanding damned iffy. A lot of time is wasted just defining meaning and concentrates on increasingly complex, but superficial, talk. The big picture is obscured and too often, the main point is missed.


Creative and effective ideas to inform action – the ideas being the equivalent of essential nutrients – wind up as occasional croûtons that turn up in a huge side of fancy-looking, but vitamin deficient, lettuce and dressing. Decisions derive from the poorest quality food and the outcomes aren’t healthy.


A simpler idea: My context, your context, the human context, the planet’s context.


But if you enjoy a tossed salad on occasion, here’s a link.


Bon appetite.


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