Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Compassion requires following the Platinum Rule

The word "compassion" means "suffering with", but it is different than sympathy which usually means the same thing. Compassion is more like empathy, being able to put oneself in the shoes of the other person, to understand the person's suffering, but not to feel the same thing, to maintain a position in one's own world and yet not allowing oneself to get into the position of the suffering person completely. Compassion in this sense is often a "one down" dynamic, someone in a better position understanding, and caring and trying to help another person in a worse position.

It takes a big person to be compassionate, to get out of one's self and consider the feelings, situation, and circumstances of another. Often people refer to the Golden rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" when they think about and talk about compassion. How would you like to be treated like the other person is, or be in the other person's situation? However, the Golden Rule doesn't quite get to the essence of compassion because it is based on an ethic of self interest. Treat other people the way you want to be treated or you can't expect them to treat you the way you would like to be treated. In A Course In Miracles, this is called "give to get" which is the game of the ego. This "give to get" game is not true compassion in the spiritual sense that the second principle is asking us to affirm and promote.

The compassion of the second principle is much deeper and more demanding than the Golden rule; it implies the Platinum rule. The Platinum rule is "do unto others as they would have you do unto them." As a 68 year old white middle class male, if I treat a 16 year old pregnant, inner-city, African American,  female the same way I want to be treated, I probably would be way off the mark. If I am to treat her as she wants to be treated, I would need to know several things. What it's like to be African American, What it's like to live in poverty in the inner city. What it's like to be a teen ager in this day and age. What it's like to be female. What it's like to be pregnant. And these questions are only the tip of the ice berg.

Before I can exhibit compassion, I would have to have some curiosity and interest in people who are very different from me. I would most likely have to be willing to explore circumstances, and dynamics that are outside of my comfort zone and usual experience. I would have to be willing to place myself in a not knowing position in proximity to the person I profess to want to understand and care about. I would have to be willing to listen and learn about a person's experience of suffering as well as the person's joys and experiences that are precious. I would have to willing to appreciate the meaning that another person makes of themselves and the world that is quite different from my own and even threatening.

I haven't found many people in my life who are mature enough, over themselves enough, to be truly compassionate. It is much easier for people to be superficially sympathetic, but to be truly compassionate takes courage, the courage to overcome the fears of people and situations and events so different from those we would want to happen to us. People don't say this verbally, but their behavior and attitudes often demonstrate the thoughts like these, "I don't want to listen to this." "I can't handle this. I'm not going there." "I'm busy enough and stressed enough with my own life than to get involved in this." etc.

Linda McCullough Moore writes a telling passage in her story, On My Own Way Now, in the Sun Magazine in April, 2014 about at elderly demented woman in a nursing home:

     This singsong woman here tonight: I want to ask if she knows my mother, what with them both having light-brown hair, both playing the guitar and singing "Side by Side."
     "Oh, we ain't got a barrel of money/ maybe we're ragged and funny/ but we'll travel the road/sharing our load/side by side."
     "Do you know my mother?" I ask the woman.
      She scowls and looks around for someone who might rescue her. She's got songs for us, but nothing else."

The singsong lady, god bless her, has sympathy and songs, but no compassion. Volunteering to sing songs for the old folks perhaps is nice enough. It's better than nothing. But the singsong lady is too frightened, to unsure about working with demented, geriatric nursing home patients, to have anything else for them.

Most of us don't have what it takes to be compassionate. Our fears of other people's differences and suffering frighten us so we keep distance, and protect ourselves. Compassion takes tremendous maturity and courage. It is a very difficult virtue to cultivate and practice. Compassion requires us to move outside our comfort zone and that is a requirement that often blocks us from becoming our better selves and being there for a person in his or her suffering.

We are called by the second principle to "suck it up", overcome our fears, rise above our egos, and extend the Love of God to another of God's creatures. After all, a brother or a sister is a part of us. When we realize that we are all in this thing called life together and that we swim or sink as part of the interdependent web of existence as one, we will have finally experienced what the second principle is naming compassion.


  1. I never thought about compassion taking courage before, and yet as you describe the platinum rule, I can see where I often have pulled back from a compassionate response because I didn't know anything about the person or what they might be going through especially when the person was part of the "not us" group. We have a strong tendency to feel we are compassionate with our own, but with other people who are not like us, it is a whole different story.

    I felt graced by this and want you to know how important this blog has become to me in my spiritual life. Many thanks for all that you do here.

  2. To give to get is too often the name of the game and as pointed out is not real compassion but a hoped for exchange based on equity. People often make the mistake of extending "compassion" but with strings attached as in "I did this for you when you were down and so now you owe me." True compassion expects no return or reward. True compassion hopes that if anything, the person helped and cared about will pay it forward.