The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with the desire to alleviate it.”
What we rarely consider, however, is that compassion is a tremendous source of strength. The people who have shown the greatest compassion in our world are among the most powerful and influential.
The Book of Joy is a conversation between Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama. Both men are very old, but both are filled with peace and joy, looking back upon rich and happy lives in a changing world, and looking toward a hopeful future. In their dialogue, they often spoke of compassion and its impact.
Tutu, for example, spoke of his friend Nelson Mandela. Most remember the wise and peaceful statesman of his later years. We often forget that Mandela was imprisoned for committing acts of violence. He was angry about the injustices in his country, and he sought to bring about change, first through legal means and then by causing fear.
In prison, Mandela not only saw his freedom taken away, he was further humiliated by a racist system. Black prisoners were forced to wear different clothing and had reduced food rations. Despite being a brilliant lawyer, he was made to break rocks and do other menial tasks.
After a number of years, Mandela learned to see his oppressors for what they really were: humans just like him who also suffered. In an effort to subjugate the majority population, they had sacrificed part of their humanity. They were ordinary people who wanted to be happy and most had no idea that they had actually been building their own prisons.
Mandela used his time in confinement as an opportunity for personal growth. He learned to embrace his true power, his inner strength, his ability to love, to forgive and to understand the heart of the white South African.
When he emerged from prison 27 years after entering, Mandela was no longer a man of violence, he was a man of power. He became the leader of the country that had tried to remove all of his human rights. He was a voice for peace and a symbol of hope for Africa and the entire world.
In his conversation with Tutu, the Dalai Lama also spoke of a Tibetan monk imprisoned in a Chinese prison camp for 18 years. He expressed that his greatest concern throughout this time was losing compassion for his captors. Though many died around him, this man not only survived, he maintained his joy and his humanity.
The Dalai Lama expresses compassion despite the fact that he and his people have lost their country and many now live in exile. Though he is a man of peace who has guided millions in finding inner sanctity and joy, he’s still seen as a tremendous threat by the Chinese government. In an odd way, they seem to be aware of the power of his compassion.
The beautiful thing about this strength is that it’s within the reach of all of us. Parents experience compassion when they care for their sick children and when they see the good in a child’s heart despite their mischievous actions. It’s a gift that we only need to nurture.
Some may say that compassion is a panacea, that those who embrace it are Pollyannas. Yet history shows time and again that it’s a tremendous source for positive change; perhaps it’s even the greatest force. As more of us embrace it, we not only bring hope, we actually advance the world by helping our sisters and brothers, both near and far, live to their potential.
As the Dalai Lama teaches, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.