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A compassionate life?

Looking back, I realise that the people I admired most, even as a kid, were the people who could be described as kind or compassionate. I aspired to be that kind of person.

My father, for example, could be a strict disciplinarian at home, and I often feared him. Yet there was another, surprising side to him. I knew he cared deeply about people. As a teacher, I remember him putting himself out for a widow, teaching her son in his own time. I saw the same quality in other men in our church, who would give up their Saturday to fix the gutters or fence for a neighbour who had suffered unemployment or separation. (The word my parents would darkly mutter was ‘desertion’.) No fuss, no lofty words, just practical hands-on compassion. Financial generosity was unremarkable, disposed of with a ‘don’t you worry love, we’ll fix up this bill.’

Sporting heroes aside, my childhood heroes were those who took risks to care for others. Often they were missionary doctors, nurses, and teachers who went to serve people in India or Africa and toil with the poor. They would come home on furlough and show their slides at our church, telling stories of helping people excluded from their communities because of leprosy or blindness or other disabilities. I heard stories of girls forced into early marriage and how education gave them a way out. I was riveted and inspired. Indeed, in my later teen years, when my school peers were aspiring to be businessmen or merchant bankers, deep down I wanted to be a missionary – not that I’d noise that abroad at school.

I was drawn to ordinary Australians whose lives radiated compassion. They were on my radar. Something in their understated yet burning passion to serve the vulnerable struck me as the highest calling. I now recognise that their compassion left an indelible imprint on my life.

Compassion was the spiritual pinnacle, the highest prize – but it was not just natural and automatically there.

But I also understood intuitively that the whole business was complex. Within the religious circle that shaped me, compassion was the spiritual pinnacle, the highest prize – but it was not just natural and automatically there. It required formation and focus. Sunday sermons on the Good Samaritan or on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew set a high bar: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, naked and clothe you, or in prison and visit you? When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.’

Looking beyond my own community, I could see that compassion was widely admired but also contested. Our experience of it is tricky. Who has not felt some inner conflict when walking past someone on our streets homeless and begging? Unless we have stifled all compassion, most of us wonder at times: do I make eye contact to acknowledge their humanity? But if I do, and I get drawn in, I’m faced with new dilemmas. Having seen a human face who has seen me, can I just walk on by? If I throw a few dollars, will it help or will it just feed an addiction? (And who carries cash these days anyway?) Should I stop and offer to buy them a coffee, or share a conversation that embraces our common humanity? After all, this is a fellow citizen, who as such has some claim on me.

These feelings are rarely resolved, and whatever decision we make there is no neat solution. Compassion is tricky!

And for me, this ambivalence has gone far beyond the local. I built a career on the hope that our universal esteem for the idea of compassion could translate into social and global renewal. But even when as CEO of World Vision Australia I was surfing the wave of the ‘compassion industry’, travelling to disaster zones in poor nations, I knew I would see both magnificent compassion pouring in and malicious malevolence pouring out. Foreigners were moved by the plight of strangers and wanted to help them, yet locals could be untouched by their neighbours’ pain and give in to corruption and self-interest.

I knew, too, the risk that the humanitarian cavalry riding in to fix things could often trample on dignity and local practices. We responded from compassion – but not pure compassion. We were also responding to our own needs and drives. Our need to be seen as compassionate; our need to be needed; our assumption that our systems of help were right and superior. An assertive ‘take charge’ mindset could displace being a humble presence. Relational compassion could easily be subsumed by professional competence.

Darkly, I often reflected that responding to a natural disaster is like an oil strike in our industry. The agile get there immediately and plant their brand flag, do some media to show that we’re responding, mail out to supporters for help and start raising dollars. A disaster was the value proposition that attracted donations and kept the wheels turning. Compassion literally is the oil that greases the aid sector’s wheels.

In short, compassion as a universal resource has remained an enigma. If compassion is so treasured, why is there still such conflict, inequality, and suffering in our world?

Why do the self-sufficient and well-off show such anaemic compassion levels? Why the compassion fatigue?

How deep do the roots of our compassion really go? How can we become more compassionate? And do we really want to?

This is an extract from Tim Costello’s book The Cost of Compassion. Get the book here.