Saturday, March 26, 2011

Compassion: The most human of virtues

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Three terrifying scenes -- the earthquake in Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami, the loss of radioactive gases from the affected nuclear plants -- and the landslides that occurred in the highland cities of Rio de Janeiro, have undoubtedly provoked two attitudes in us: compassion and solidarity.

First, compassion bursts forth. Among human virtues, it is perhaps the most human of all, because it not only opens us up to the other as an expression of suffering love, but to the other who is more victimized and mortified. The ideology, religion, social and cultural status of people matter little. Compassion cancels out those differences and makes us lend a hand to the victims. Remaining cynically indifferent shows an utter inhumanity that transforms us into enemies of our own humanity. Faced with the other's misfortune, there is no way not to be the compassionate Samaritans of the biblical parable.

Compassion means taking on the passion of another. It's moving to the other's place to be at his side, to suffer with him, to mourn with him, to feel heartbroken with him. Maybe we have nothing to give him and words die in our throat, but the important thing is to be by his side and not let him suffer alone. Although we are thousands of miles away from our brothers and sisters in Japan and close to our neighbors in the Cariocan hillside towns, their suffering is our suffering, their despair is our despair, the piercing cries they raise to Heaven asking "why, My God, why?" are our piercing screams. And we share the same pain of not receiving any reasonable explanation. And even if there were one, it wouldn't nullify the devastation, would not raise the destroyed houses, or resurrect loved ones, especially the innocent children.

Compassion is something unique: it does not require any prior reflexion, or arguments therefor. It simply imposes itself on us because we are essentially com-passive beings. Compassion in itself refutes the notion of biologist Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene." Or Charles Darwin's assumption that competition and the triumph of the strongest govern the dynamics of evolution. On the contrary: there are no solitary genes, all are inter-retro-connected and we humans are part of countless webs of relationships that make us beings of cooperation and solidarity.

Increasingly, scientists from quantum mechanics, astrophysics and bioanthropology, support the thesis that the supreme law of the cosmogenic process is the intertwining of all with all, and not competition that excludes. The subtle balance of the Earth, thought of as a self-regulating superorganism, requires the cooperation of a number of factors that interact with each other, with the energies of the universe, with the atmosphere, the biosphere and our own system-Earth. This cooperation is responsible for its balance, now disturbed by the excessive pressure that our wasteful consumer society makes on all ecosystems and that is manifested by the widespread ecological crisis.

In compassion there is a meeting of all religions, East and West, of all ethics, of all philosophies and all cultures. In the center is the dignity and authority of those who suffer, provoking active compassion in us.

The second attitude, akin to compassion, is solidarity. It follows the same logic as compassion. We go out to meet the other to save his life, to bring him water, food, shelter and, especially, human warmth. We know from anthropogenesis that we became human when we passed the phase of searching individually for the means of subsistence and started to seek them collectively and distribute them cooperatively among all. What humanized us yesterday, also humanizes us today. That's why it's so touching to see so many people everywhere mobilizing to help the victims and, through solidarity, give them what they need and above all the hope that, despite the misfortune, it is still worth living.

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