“Compassion, therefore, is the one virtue that lets us open ourselves not just to all humanity but also to all living beings or, at the very least, to all suffering beings.” — André Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues
In the opening paragraphs of Philip K. Dick’s Valis, we meet Horselover Fat, a saintly but psychotic twin of Dick himself, who informs us that his psychiatrist told him that in order to get well he would need to give up dope and stop helping people. Fat was unable to do either. His compassion for others causes him immense suffering; his insanity prevents his compassion from having practical effect. He is all pity, but with little to show for it.
In my mind there is a close connection between Horselover Fat’s predicament and the feelings generated by Whitney Houston’s death. Absent the dope and absent any way to actually help her or her family, we are left with pity and, as one philosopher has put it, ‘Pity doesn’t go far.’
To demonstrate the spectrum of experiences we call pity, I need only think about this past week in which Houston’s death led off, a friend’s aged dog was put down, many more civilians were slaughtered in Syria, and in Honduras a fire in a prison killed hundreds. In each case the common thread is that we can do absolutely nothing for the suffering beings directly. At a far distance we experience pity or compassion on a sliding scale: Whitney Houston’s sad demise in the foreground, a friend’s dog in the middle distance, and in the deep distance the suffering of prisoners and families alike in Honduras.
Comte-Sponville, the author of the epigram above, examines compassion and pity closely in one of the chapters of his wonderful book on virtues. He notes that compassion means ‘to suffer with,’ and pity is almost always tinged with sadness.
Pity has come in for its share of criticism throughout the ages, from the Stoics to Spinoza to Nietzsche to Hannah Arendt. “Pity is the sadness one feels in response to the sadness of another; it does not spare the other person his own sadness but rather tends to add to it.” Against this piling up of pain Spinoza counseled reason and justice. In his view, pity is evil and useless and unnecessary. Why not act toward the sufferer with the joy of love and generosity? Who needs pity?
Nietzsche regarded pity as more than useless, a weakness that was a fatal flaw in cultures. Those cultures based on Christianity he thought timid and effeminate because of their propensity toward compassion, following the example of Christ. The truly noble cultures would cultivate a visceral hardness, a kind of bitter joy in one’s own toughness and self-sufficiency.
Which brings us back to Whitney Houston. It is a story we are all too familiar with: the celebrity blessed with talent to burn, beauty, and success, who squanders it, usually through drug and alcohol abuse, and ultimately dies alone under suspicious circumstances, long before their thread of life is fully spun out by the Muses. Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Belushi, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, Elvis—the list goes on and on. We mourn their passing, we miss their talent, we feel a shiver of relief that we are still here—and we go out in the morning and start the car and drive off to work or school or to shop. Of course we must go on; most of us would not be incapacitated by the deaths, however unfortunate, of those we don’t really know.
I am trying to understand, nevertheless, why we feel this sadness, where it might fit in The Vast Scheme of Things. Understanding an emotion is not the same as defining and categorizing it according to function. Understanding develops almost organically, like a seed bursting open, thrusting shoots up toward the light, branching and twining, from strength to strength. To follow the analogy, it is training the vine instead of pinning the butterfly.
Emotions simply are: we have them and are affected by them. That fact does not stop us from analyzing them in order to wring all the utility we can from them. We study them so we can provoke them in others. We tamp them down, build them up, hold them in check, and give free rein to them. Plato called them wild horses, the ever-present danger to rationality. Yet without them we’d be less than human, and compassion, joined at the hip with sadness, practically stands in for love for humankind. “Humanity,” notes Comte-Sponville, “when we speak of it as a virtue, is nearly synonymous with compassion, a fact that says much about both.”
Compassion, like sympathy, is linguistically bound to the idea and experience of suffering with others. It is a universal that transcends languages and cultures, opening us even to the suffering of animals and enemies. Yet, when a public figure says, ‘I feel your pain,’ or a character in a TV drama says stiffly, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ we bridle. This emotion, more than most, relies on honesty perceived. In other words, if we’re not really experiencing it, then silence in the presence of the sufferer might be better than empty eloquence.
But an emotion is first experienced and then communicated. We see ourselves as sad, happy, angry, or confused. In fact, William James argued that we are sad because we cry, rather than crying because we are sad. The emotion wells up, we feel it, we awaken to it, and we express it.
There don’t seem to be any selfless emotions. Even when we feel pity or compassion for another who is suffering we have not Photoshopped ourselves out of the picture. Aristotle said, “what we fear for ourselves excites our pity when it happens to others.” That may be, but does it negate the effect? I don’t think so. What is to be gained, in the long run, by hardening our hearts against the suffering around us, whether it be that of a dog or a diva?
There is an important distinction to be made, I believe, between pity and compassion. Pity has about it something of contempt for an inferior, the poor schmuck who finally got his. If that’s what it is, nobody really wants our pity. But compassion, if based on love and kindness, sees oneself in the suffering of the other. Respect for the dignity of the sufferer calls not for pity shaded as contempt, but for the recognition of the universal in the particular, the tragic beauty of our common humanity.
So for Whitney Houston’s passing we could claim these lines of Rainier Rilke from his Sonnets to Orpheus:
“But you now, you whom I knew like a flower whose name
I don’t know, I will once more remember and show you
to them, you who were taken away,
beautiful playmate of the invincible cry.
Dancer first, who suddenly, with body full of lingering,
paused, as though her youngness were being cast in bronze;
mourning and listening—. Then, from the high achievers
music fell into her altered heart.
Sickness was near. Already overcome by the shadows,
her blood pulsed more darkly, yet, as if fleetingly
suspect, it thrust forth into its natural spring.
Again and again, interrupted by darkness and downfall,
it gleamed of the earth. Until after terrible throbbing
it entered the hopelessly open portal.”