The Forgotten Virtue of Compassion

And he coming forth saw a great multitude, and had compassion on them, and healed their sick. (Mt 14: 14)

A glance at almost any daily media broadcast will readily show anyone who doubts that many in the world have forgotten the virtue of compassion that this is certainly true. Occasional secular commentators have suggested a variety of sociological causes for this lack. Our holy Spiritual Church Father Nikitas Stithatos notes accurately that lack of compassion is directly connected with our separation from God. He tells us that:

A soul receives either blessings or penalties and punishment according to its inner activities. If it concerns itself with things divine and tills the ground of humility, tears fall like rain from heaven, and it cultivates love of God, faith and compassion for others . . . attracting  [others’] attention with the rays of its virtue . . . . But if the soul devotes itself to the mundane and merely human matters, stirring and agitating the fetid waters of sin, it nourishes hatred and repels what is good and beautiful.  (Philokalia IV, p. 87-88).

The exact connotation of the word mundane is: a lack of direct connection with God. In today’s information technology (IT) world much can be found that not only disconnects us from God, but also actively fosters the disconnection. When this happens, as St. Nikitas so aptly puts it, the “good and beautiful” are repelled and loss of compassion for others is a major consequence.

The Etymology of compassion

The English word ‘compassion’ has its roots in both Greek and Latin. In the Greek, we trace the usage back to the related  word for ‘suffering: pathos.  In Latin, we can see the root word cum, meaning ‘with’ and passio, or suffering, and patior, I suffer. In English, the dictionary meaning of the word encompasses: “A deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering,” as well as “understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it”. Individuals who have an illness and disease are called patients due to their suffering. In a sense, those with compassion co-suffer with them. The dictionary understanding of compassion correctly identifies three essential psycho-behavioral aspects: an emotional component: co-suffering, .i.e. feeling with the patient; a cognitive component: understanding; and a behavioral component: actions to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion: The Psychological Component

Compassion differs from empathy. The critical element in compassion that differentiates it from empathy is its behavioral component. Empathy is thinking and feeling what others are thinking and feeling. Compassion combines the deep awareness of the sufferings of others with a desire that leads, eventually, to an action to relieve the suffering

The Developmental Sequence

In terms of human development, natural empathy is the foundation of pro-social behaviors such as altruism. (Lewis and Haviland, 1993) Compassion is a component of love (the practice of agape, as it is known in patristic literaturei). Love is what we do, not just what we feel, for the good and welfare of others. Psychologists would ask: how can we love, how can we work for the good and welfare of others, if we are not aware of their suffering nor have a desire to relieve it? We love others only if we can first sense their needs. Empathy, then, may initiate the compassion process.

A Spiritual Caveat

However, as I discuss later in this article, we have to be spiritually predisposed to be empathic in order to practice altruistic-compassionate behavior with a specifically Godly ethos. This means that the compassion sequence should be of Divinely inspired agape indwelling  in the heart. Such heart-centered agape would propel the mind to engage in both empathy and the compassion action steps. This would be the fullness of compassion because it would be enlivened by Godly love.

Understanding compassion by considering indifferent and/or malevolent behavior

One approach to understanding compassion is to consider its polar opposite: aggression, an anti-social component. One promising research endeavor on this aspect is the Dynamic Systems Model discussed by Granic and Patterson, 2006. This model uses coercion theory that was mainly developed in the research laboratories of the Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC) by collecting and analyzing parent-child interaction data over various naturalistic settings. (Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Reid, Patterson, & Snyder, 2002).

Coercion theory uses the processes of cognitive-behavioral psychology to study how family members mutually interact in such a way as to shape aggressive behavior in children and to  simultaneously decrease parental influence over the child’s inappropriate belligerent behavior. As described by the researchers, it initially starts with parental demands that their children perform appropriate pro-social behavior. As I point out in an earlier article (Morelli, 2007):

In popular terminology such coercive controlling behavior is called Nagging. In discordant relationships, Patterson (1976, 1982) discovered that coercive controlling behaviors by one individual produce reactive similar coercive counter-behaviors in others, thus creating a pattern of escalation. This controlling aggression, or nagging, becomes stronger because of the expectation that persistence results in a pay-off (Bandura, 1986).

As parental coercive attempts increase they are often also accompanied by escalation of a harsh strident tone of voice [speech pragmatics). (Morelli, 2007]. A child (or any person for that matter) being coerced may feel controlled and resist the nagger.  One reason may be that the person being nagged (child or adult) needs to maintain a sense of healthy self-worth (Morelli, 2006a). The child may view the coercive tasks as symbols of a power struggle between a greater power and himself with a resultant loss of freedom and sense of being boxed in. A coerced child may want to avoid compliance as much as possible. Also, such a child may follow this avoidance with oppositional behavior to reassert his power and sense of control, to maintain some sense of control, and thus asserts himself by acting contrary to what he perceives he is being coerced into doing. As Granic and Patterson (2006) point out, this “finally [leads to] the parent's capitulation.” The researchers conclude: “. . .coercive interactions are the fundamental behavioral mechanisms by which aggression emerges and stabilizes over development.” This pattern is likely to be repeated in different settings over a lifespan. It should also be noted that the parents are simultaneously modeling coercive behavior, which means they are teaching their children to be coercive.

Malevolence generalizes

For example, the first encounter many children have with a social institution outside of his/her family home is nursery school. The coercive interactions first learned at home are likely to be repeated and reinforced by the reciprocal behaviors of the child with the other students. Patterson, Littman, & Bricker, 1967 point out that “When victims of aggressive behavior cry, give up their toy, or leave the disputed territory, the aggressive child “wins,” and he or she is, therefore, more likely to use the same aversive strategies in the service of future goals.” This then continues throughout a lifetime. Both early and later patterns of anti-social behaviors (including failure to empathize and act compassionately) are conceptualized by researchers as also being influenced by child-parent similarities or differences including: cognitive appraisals; emotions; global personality structures, and neural underpinnings of these emotion–appraisal feedback cycles and  processes (Lewis, 2005).

The role of appraisal processes

Appraisals of cognition and emotion play a key role in developing anti-social patterns.   As Lewis (2005) posits, a complex interaction exists between cognition and emotion. Reinforcement of patterns [between cognition and emotions] forms the structure of self-organizing interpretations of events in real time and accounts for personality patterns over development. Over time, and with repeated experiences, cognitive appraisals emerge in relation to their accompanying emotions, which then serve to amplify or constrain behaviors. Such cognitive appraisals serve the purpose of guiding an individual’s attention to elements in any situation that are relevant to their goal. Granic and Patterson (2006) conceive of these as cognitive-emotive-behavioral biases. These appraisal processes are similar to the pre-potency of automatic thoughts that elicit cognitive and behavioral dysfunction as described in the work of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) researchers and clinicians. (Beck, A.T. 1991, Beck, J.S. 2011, Burns, 1980 and Morelli, 2010).

A concrete example of coercion enhancing malevolence

One researcher (Forgatch, 1989) found that anger and contempt are the major emotional effects for parents and children in coercive situations.  This could be conceived of as an escalating synergistic process in which the total effect is greater than the sum of the effects of the two (or more) interacting individuals. An example illustrating this process is provided by Granic and Patterson (2005) and is worth quoting in full:

A mother asks her son to comply to a vague request, for instance, “Help clean the house.” Just before her request, she is feeling anxious, thinking about the many things she needs to get done by the end of the night. The child, playing a video game, hears his mother’s request and begins to feel irritated, thinking that his mother always picks on him rather than his brother. As these low-grade [dysfunctional] emotions and appraisals coalesce, he rudely refuses his mother’s request (e.g., “Go clean it yourself!”). Her attention is now fully tuned to her son’s defiance and, through [favorable] feedback, her anxiety increases with the expectation that her son will force them into a confrontation. She also begins to feel irritated with his defiance. In an attempt to regulate her anxiety and her irritation, the mother suggests that they could go out to a restaurant afterward if he would just help her. Perceiving his mother as a nag and an obstacle to his goal (i.e., to continue to play video games), the child’s irritability grows into anger, expressed through loud complaining. In turn, through continued [favorable] feedback processes, his mother’s irritable feelings become amplified into anger, overriding her anxiety, and coupling with appraisals of her child as “selfish and nasty” and an obstacle to her goal of eventual rest. Her hostile emotion–appraisal amalgam motivates her to begin threatening her son with extreme consequences or to denigrate him in retaliation. Perceiving her rage, the child likewise escalates, becoming angrier while his appraisals change from mother as nuisance to mother as monster. Soon, these reciprocal interactions among appraisal components, emotions, and harsh words stabilize through [unfavorable] feedback processes. The child goes on playing his video games, ignoring his mother pointedly and angrily, while his blameful perception of her stabilizes. His mother, feeling beaten and unable to continue the fight, shifts from anger to contempt, which stabilizes along with an appraisal of her child as “useless” and “always bad.” Both dyad members remain in this seething state for the rest of the evening. (p. 108)

One way of interpreting this scenario is that the response of each person is guided by self-focus and thus blocks taking the perspective of the other. The child’s mother feels she has the right to force her son to comply with her will. The boy perceives his mother’s nagging behavior as “an obstacle to his goal.”

Anonymity of Social Media fueling indifference and malevolence

Numerous studies show that another psychological variable that influences the lack of compassion and the corresponding open display of anti-social aggression is anonymity. Anonymity is growing due to the proliferation of social media (Suler, 2004). One group of researchers (Postimes, Spears & Lea, 1998) suggests that individuals who share a common social identity (so readily prevalent in contemporary social media), may be more susceptible to group influence, social attraction, stereotyping, sex-gender typing, and discrimination in anonymous Computer Mediated Communication (CMC).

Compassion as an Emotion

Some of the early studies on compassion were focused on understanding compassion as related to empathic concern (Davis, 1983), sympathy (Eisenberg, et. al. 2007) and pity (Fiske, et al., 2002), which involves appraisals of concern for less fortunate individuals. In one study, Campos et al. (2009) found that compassion and sympathy were grouped together with similar words for pro-social emotions such as “kindness, tenderness, warmth, and caring.” Some studies have investigated compassion as a state (brief reaction-response to a specific situation or context) versus an ongoing trait or disposition over time (Shiota, Keltner, & John, 2006).

Critical Variables in Compassion Research

There are various theories concerning the critical variables that make up compassion.  Researchers Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas ( 2010) suggest that “. . .within the concepts of appraisal research, this analysis suggests that compassion will be shaped by: 1) the relevance of the sufferer to the self; 2) the sufferer's blameworthiness for the [unfavorable] outcome; and 3) the individual's ability to cope with the situation at hand.”  These appraisal processes are summarized in Figure 1.[ii] It could be hypothesized that the anti-social malevolent effects of the Dynamic Systems Model and the ascending anonymity factor now being actualized in social media, as discussed above, would influence any appraisal processes. Initial research investigating such variables as culture,(for example, differences in how compassion is facially and bodily displayed and communicated), gender differences, psycho-neurological variables such as age, evolutionary change and sex differences remains to be further  explored.


Goetz et al (2010) make a distinction between compassion and love: “Compassion responds to suffering and negative [unfavorable] events, whereas love antecedents are primarily positive [favorable]” (p.363). However, this distinction is not made by Christ, and this distinction is not understood as such by His Church. In psychological terms, love, as taught to us by Christ, is congruent with what George Kelly (1955, V. 2, p. 57) would call  a superordinate construct  – it encompasses all. It derives from the “organizational corollary which states “each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs." Then Kelly goes on to say that “one construct may subsume another as one of its elements” (p.57). This could be understood as an hierarchical organization in which higher-order or abstract superordinate constructs influence individuals’ perceptions of the world around them. Kelly also considered superordinate constructs as "core-constructs" that significantly contribute to our identity and to how we perceive ourselves interacting in the world.

However, Goetz et al. (2010) do cite one study that they call an “intriguing possibility:” that love is, in fact, a core factor underlying compassion. They point out that the work of Greitemeyer, Rudolph, & Weiner (2003) suggests that compassion can be “moderated by love and valuing of the other person, probably through appraisals of self-relevance.” This research also extends to appraisals of blameworthiness and the extremity of the need of the recipient for compassion.

“Love” the ultimate superordinate construct

Christ Himself has given us the ultimate “superordinate construct.” He said: “And that he should be loved with the whole heart, and with the whole understanding, and with the whole soul, and with the whole strength; and to love one' s neighbor as one's self, is a greater thing than all holocausts and sacrifices.” (Mk 12:33). This is certainly the understanding of the Apostle Paul who writes to the Galatians (4: 14): “For all the law is fulfilled in one word: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Thus compassion without love is meaningless in a Christ-like sense. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity [love], it profiteth me nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3). Certainly, for Christ-like compassion, any differentiation of individuals based on such appraisals must be rejected and/or modified. Did not Christ tell us:

 And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two, Give to him that asketh of thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this? Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5: 41-48)

The need to discern real need

As Morelli (2009) points out, appraisal of the criterion for helping (in this case having compassion) is “that it be for the good and welfare of the individual.” Such an appraisal must be guided by discernment, or what our Church Fathers call diakrisis, the virtue of being able to discriminate between Godly and un-Godly thoughts. For example, dependent individuals not being provided with the opportunity to learn functional behaviors they need and that they are capable of learning, would not be for their good and welfare. Thus the need for a Godly appraisal of their real need.

Since the Vietnam War I have visited Spinal Cord Injury units of Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals. Hospital staff and even visitors were instructed never to do any action for a paralyzed veteran that they could do themselves unless they specifically asked and you determined they could not perform the task. This was personally difficult for me. I was brought up, for example,  to open doors for people, pick up something they may have dropped and give it back to them etc. Now I had to watch a paraplegic or quadriplegic veteran struggle to perform such simple tasks. Truly, however, this was for their good and welfare. They had to learn to do as much as they could do for themselves in order to maximize being self-sufficient. Even now as an on-call Orthodox Chaplain for the local VA Health-care Center, I have to and do abide by these instructions.

Consider what St. John of the Ladder (Moore,1979) says of pride in his spiritual classic the Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Pride is denial of God, an invention of the devil, the despising of men, the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of sterility, flight from Divine assistance, the precursor of madness, the cause of falls, the foothold for satanic possession, a source of anger, a door of hypocrisy, the support of demons, the guardian of sins, the patron of pitilessness, the rejection of compassion, a bitter inquisitor, an inhuman judge, an opponent of God, a root of blasphemy. (p. 138)

In today’s terminology we would rightly say that pride is the mother of all other passions. It is the perfect storm in which all the other passions can develop;  self-love, presumption, arrogance, and vainglory all can be seen to stem from this root. St. John even specifically relates pride to “rejection of compassion.”

Reflecting on St. Maximos the Confessor’s counsel (Philokalia II, p. 274) may also help provide a connection between lack of compassion and the anti-social aggressive behaviors described above. St. Maximos, although specifically talking about the passion of gluttony, includes a caution against “self-love [as] it severs the natural bonds of compassion.” This understanding is further developed by our holy Church spiritual father Nikitas Stithatos who first points out that “nothing so prevents someone newly engaged in spiritual warfare from practicing the commandments as this pernicious vice of self-love, (Philokalia IV, p. 86) and then suggests a spiritual basis for a solution: “If it [the individual] fills itself with things Divine and the ground of humility [overcoming narcissistic self-love] . . . it cultivates love of God, faith and compassion for others.”

A modern example of the vacuousness of compassion without love is given to us by a  saintly contemporary spiritual father of the Church, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (2008). First he tells us:

This is the most important thing of all: to have true love among yourselves . . . not false love. Always, when there is true concern for each other, compassion and love, one can act correctly. Kindness and love are empowering. (p. 234)

Then the saintly Elder goes on to make the connection between Godly-love and compassion even more explicit with a concrete example:

Love is a divine attribute and informs the other person. Even in hospitals, when the doctors and nurses feel genuine compassion for their patients, this is the most effective medicine of all the medications given to them. The patients feel they are being cared for with love [emphasis mine] and have a sense of certainty, security and consolation. (p. 347)

By Fr. George Morelli

Source: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/compassion-the-forgotten-virtue1



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