我没有研究过英语“怜悯之心”（compassion）和“指南针”（compass）两词之间的语源学关系，但我猜应该有某种共同的本源，而不仅是七个英文字母“c o m p a s s”的简单重合。
“How Deep is Your Compassion?”
“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
I’ve been thinking about compassion — specifically how it seems to be in relatively short supply these days. I suppose it’s a bit like the global water situation. The difference is that scientists can demonstrate the extent and severity of the water crisis, but we can’t readily measure the degree or direct impact of the compassion shortage.
It struck me as noteworthy that contained within the English word “compassion” is the word “compass.”
The invention of the compass, and eventually, its application in navigation, were breakthroughs of immense importance for mankind. People were able to explore far-away new horizons, and still find their way home on land or sea.
The earliest historical evidence of the use of the compass comes from China, during the Han Dynasty (roughly 200 B.C.). Interestingly, however, the earliest applications of the compass were not for navigation, but for geomancy, or feng shui. It wasn’t until many centuries later, during the Song dynasty, that the compass was adapted for use in navigation.
It’s mind-boggling to think that mankind had the compass for roughly 1,000 years before applying it to navigation. Today, following the passage of roughly another 1,000 years, we have become highly dependent on high-tech navigation aids like GPS, Beidou, etc.. That’s true whether we’re walking, bicycling, flying, driving or taking other forms of transport. This technology is increasingly everywhere — in our phones, watches, cars, etc.
Ancient mariners, whether they be Vikings or South Sea Islanders, would navigate with astronomical bearings by reading the celestial bodies as well as landmarks. We’ve generally lost that ability, since we now have sophisticated, reliable, and portable tools to guide us.
I haven’t researched the etymological connection between the words “compass” and “compassion”, but I’d guess there is some kind of common root, beyond the simple overlap of seven letters of the English alphabet: c_o_m_p_a_s_s.
Compasses are still very useful, even if fewer and fewer people carry them. Compassion is still a very important quality in people, even if we see less evidence of it in society at large.
The title of this post is actually a misleading question. It’s a bit like asking “How deep is the river?” Unless it’s a man-made canal, a river’s depth varies from place to place and time to time. Depending on many natural (and some man-made) factors, a river’s depth can fluctuate widely during any given year.
It’s the same with the depth of an individual’s compassion. It ebbs and flows. We are all distracted by work and family priorities, health issues, material needs and wants, greed, hunger for power — and many other influences which can cause us to focus more on our own desires than the needs of other people.
Some religions contain teachings which emphasize the importance of compassion for our fellow man and woman. People who believe in those religions may benefit from timely reminders about “rebooting their compassion drives.”
But what about other people, especially those who’ve never personally experienced hardship, hunger, grief, or hatred? It’s very easy to become complacent, take things for granted, and be selfish. It’s very easy to forget why compassion is such an important quality for each of us to develop.
How can people who are not compassionate towards themselves be compassionate towards others? Compassion is fundamental to long-term friendships and partnerships. It is arguably also the foundation on which a happy and satisfied personal life is based.
I am a big fan of Jim Collins. In his book “How the Mighty Fall”, he describes how certain companies who had once been phenomenally successful eventually fail. His analysis outlines the five stages which ultimately lead to their defeat.
Stage one is “hubris, born of success”; and stage two is what Collins calls “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” I won’t delve into the other three stages here, because Collins’ book is focused on companies.
My observation is that these two stages also apply to people. How many people around you display signs of “hubris born of success”, and “an undisciplined pursuit of more”? I don’t know about you, but I see plenty of people around me exhibiting those traits every day. I have no scientific data, but my gut sense is this kind of behavior is far more prevalent that it was twenty years ago.
I don’t think it is coincidence that people behaving like this tend to be the least compassionate people we know.
Like companies, people can learn and correct their ways, adjusting as they go. But to do so, they need a clear vision of what’s important, and the longer-term consequences of ignoring that which is important.
Whether you are religious or not, ignoring the importance of compassion is like losing your compass. The difference in this case is, there is no GPS to replace it. If you lose it, you may not find your way home.
Anyone who has ever been on the high seas, in the mountains, or deep forest, in the fog, without a compass, will appreciate what a frightening and risky situation that is.
It makes sense for us all to place a high value on improving the depth of our compassion, on an ongoing, life-long basis. We’ll be happier for it, and the world will certainly be a better place as a result.
Another two things about real compassion … it can be very contagious; and its reach extends beyond people, to animals and the natural environment.
To paraphrase a slogan popular in another era, let us “Dig tunnels deep, and store compassion everywhere.”
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