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A mother, though, has the basis for
good understanding of her child. She was
once a child herself. This means that as
we get older, our capacity for empathy
also grows, but it is still never perfect.
A young adult, even one who knows
everything, is unlikely to understand the
subtle disabilities of ageing. Young doctors
can skilfully alleviate the symptoms of
older patients, which is what we want,
without really knowing how they actually
Older people, having experienced
much and having suffered the usual slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune, are
potentially in the best position to be truly
compassionate. We typically become
calmer, more philosophic and happier
as we get older, according to the best
research, but becoming wiser does have a
downside. It makes it harder to empathise
with the dramas of youth. I find it now
takes a certain effort to imagine the
intoxications of romantic love, for example.
I suspect we are born with a greater or
lesser capacity for empathy that we can't
do much about. At one extreme we see
the little kids who are distressed to see a
dying bug. At the other extreme we have
the "greed is good" mob. Trying to be
more compassionate than we are may
be rather like trying to love your mother
and father because you are supposed to.
Not everyone can be empathetic, but
compassion does have another dimension:
it generally implies action. In fact, we can
see someone as compassionate regardless
of their capacity for feeling. Bill Gates, the
world's richest man, has now devoted
virtually all his wealth to charity. He
doesn't seem to be a particularly warm
or sympathetic individual. He knows the
poor in Africa are suffering, but does he
actually feel their suffering the way they
do? We see him as compassionate because
of what he does to help, not because of
his depth of feeling.
This brings us to another question.
Is compassion natural or is it a social
construct? If it was natural, we should
find it fairly equally in all societies. In
fact, compassion in the form of charity,
philanthropy and welfare is almost entirely
a Western phenomenon. In the East,
tolerance, goodwill and non-violence are
the ideal virtues, but compassion in our
Western sense of disinterested, benevolent
action is almost completely absent.
Ultimately, compassion is not about
money or medical care. It is about "feeling
with" another. It is about "seeing" and
accepting an individual just as he or she is,
in this moment. This may be the kindest
thing we can ever do. Many people are
very lonely, isolated within themselves,
though surrounded by people and activity.
They go through life never having been
"seen" by anyone.
Neither you nor I can be compassionate
in the Bill Gates' style, but we can still
love the people we meet. We can do this
through empathy, listening, silence and
a willingness to make a space for the
other in our minds. All of us can be
compassionate in this way, every single
'We typically become calmer,
more philosophic and happier
as we get older, according to
the best research...'
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