Why Compassion Matters

by Bob Schwartz

On August 4, in a hospital just a few miles from where this post is being written, John Wise, 66, snuck into the room where his wife Barbara, 65, was lying. They had been married for 45 years. She was suffering, reports indicate, from a triple aneurysm, and her prognosis appears to have been poor. He ended her life, shooting her in the head, though she did not die until the next day. His plan to shoot himself immediately after that was thwarted when his gun jammed. This week, he was charged with aggravated murder and faces life in prison without parole.

This has raised, not for the first or last time, the issue of mercy killing in the face of untreatable illness and declining quality of life. With an aging and ailing population, whether it is our family or ourselves, this goes each passing day from the abstract to the very real.

You can deal with this on an intellectual and practical level, weighing moral and legal issues, determining what you might do or ask others to do under a variety of circumstances. But hearing this story, the most natural thing is to cry. Not out of any failure to resolve those issues, but out of sheer compassion.

Compassion is what matters. All of our spiritual traditions commend it, but maybe none makes it more plainly central than Buddhism. The first truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering; all else in how we are to live stems from this.

The story is told of a woman whose child had died. She came to the Buddha, who instructed her to visit neighbors and to return with a mustard seed from a house that had not been touched by death. She came back empty handed. This wasn’t to make her feel “better,” which it couldn’t. This was to help her see herself where she was, a living drop in the sea of suffering.

Compassion is more than walking in another’s shoes, more than the Golden Rule, more than “no man is an island.” It is the deepest possible recognition, beyond words, of the need that universal suffering creates. The need to care unconditonally.

If compassion is present in our lives and our politics, whatever we do cannot be completely wrong. If compassion is absent, nothing we do can be right, no matter how good it is meant to seem.