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    palm trees outside a hospital

    How Can We Stay Compassionate?

    Don’t be so sensitive. Detach yourself. Suffering will just make you depressed. You can’t make much difference anyway.

    By Albert Schweitzer

    July 17, 2022
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    • George Reid Marsh

      A great book on the subject of compassion and the toll it takes on compassionate people is "Beautiful Souls," by Yuval Press. It tells a small number of stories and adds depth from social psychology and history. For example, a Swiss border guard during the Nazi era. He saw the humanity and desperation in some German Jews who wanted to enter Switzerland illegally. He let them in and was fired. After the war he was reinstated. The point is that it is easy to reject strangers if one doesn't see and hear them, but it opens one to compassion when one can see and hear the strangers. The same is generally true. If I read the story and see photos of people in need, I am more likely to act compassionately than if I read only statistics or charts. Interpersonal experience of one's membership in the human family prompts empathy for others. Humans share emotional bonds.

    • Jeremiah Johnson

      The daily dig for this article reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" - how the father struggles with becoming more jaded towards other human beings' suffering throughout the novel, while his son's compassion works as a counterweight.

    • Steve

      Compassion is a gift of the spirit. The absence is a hardening of the heart. Men must and are through history; courageous and strong, with conviction and compassion.

    • Mary

      Much needed insight for such a time a this!!

    The great enemy of morality has always been indifference. As children, as far as our awareness of things went, we had an elementary capacity for compassion. But our capacity did not develop over the years in proportion to the growth of our understanding. This was uncomfortable and bewildering. We noticed so many people who no longer had compassion or empathy. Then we, too, suppressed our sensitivity so as to be like everyone else. We did not want to be different from them, and we did not know what to do. Thus many people become like houses in which one story after another has been vacated, a lifeless structure in which all windows look empty and strange, deserted.

    To remain good means to remain wide awake. We are all like men walking in the bitter cold and snow. Woe to him who gives way to exhaustion, sits down, and falls asleep. He will never wake again. So our inmost moral being perishes when we are too tired to share the life and experiences and sufferings of the creatures around us. Woe to us if our sensitivity grows numb. It destroys our conscience in the broadest sense of the word: the consciousness of how we should act dies.…

    The other threat to our capacity and our will to empathy is nagging doubt. What is the use of it? you think. Your most strenuous efforts to prevent suffering, to ease suffering, to preserve life, are nothing compared to the anguish remaining in the world around you, the wounds you are powerless to heal. Certainly, it is dreadful to be reminded of the extent of our helplessness.…

    Albert Schweitzer holds two newborn babies at the hospital he founded

    Albert Schweitzer holds two newborn babies at the hospital he founded in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa, 1950s. Used by permission.

    Still another temptation arises – compassion really involves you in suffering. Anyone who experiences the woes of this world within his heart can never again feel the surface happiness that human nature desires. When hours of contentment and joy come, the compassionate man cannot give himself unreservedly to them, for he can never forget the suffering he has experienced with others. What he has seen stays with him. The anguished faces of the poor return; the cries of the sick echo in his mind; he remembers the man whose hard lot he once read about – and darkness shuts out the light of his joy. Darkness returns again and again. In cheerful company he suddenly becomes absent-minded. And the tempter says again: You can’t live like this. You must be able to detach yourself from what is depressing around you. Don’t be so sensitive. Teach yourself the necessary indifference, put on an armor, be thoughtless like everybody else if you want to live a sensible life. In the end we are ashamed to know of the great experience of empathy and compassion. We keep it secret from one another and pretend it is foolish, a weakness we outgrow when we begin to be “reasonable” people.

    These three great temptations unobtrusively wreck the presupposition of all goodness. Guard against them. Counter the first temptation by saying that for you to share experience and to lend a helping hand is an absolute inward necessity. Your utmost attempts will be but a drop in the ocean compared with what needs to be done, but only this attitude will give meaning and value to your life. Wherever you are, as far as you can, you should bring redemption, redemption from the misery brought in the world by the self-contradictory will of life, redemption that only he who has this knowledge can bring. The small amount you are able to do is actually much if it only relieves pain, suffering, and fear from any living being, be it human or any other creature. The preservation of life is the true joy.

    When you callously ignore the suffering of others, you lose the capacity to share their happiness too.

    As for the other temptation, the fear that compassion will involve you in suffering, counter it with the realization that the sharing of sorrow expands your capacity to share joy as well. When you callously ignore the suffering of others, you lose the capacity to share their happiness too. And however little joy we may see in this world, the sharing of it, together with the good we ourselves create, produces the only happiness which makes life tolerable. And finally, you have no right to say: I will be this, or I will be that, because I think one way will make me happier than another. No, you must be what you ought to be, a true, knowing person, a person who identifies with the world, a person who experiences the world within himself or herself. Whether you are happier by the ordinary standards of happiness or not doesn’t matter. The secret hour does not require of us that we should be happy – to obey the call is the only thing that satisfies deeply.

    So I tell you, don’t let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert. It is your soul which matters. If only these words – words in which I am laying bare my inmost thoughts – could force you who are with me here to destroy the deceit with which the world tries to put us to sleep! If only you would all stop being thoughtless and stop flinching from the challenge to learn reverence for life and true empathy, if only you could be absorbed in compassionate awareness, I would rest content.


    From Reverence for Life, by Albert Schweitzer, translated by Reginald H. Fuller (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1969), 119–120, 123–125.

    Contributed By portrait of Albert Schweitzer

    Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) was an Alsatian humanitarian, physician, philosopher, musician, and Lutheran minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “reverence for life.”

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