Compassion and Mental Health: what can Faith contribute to the debate by Trystan Owain Hughes

“The people that I work with and the patients that I serve may not remember my name, but they will certainly remember how I made them feel,”  said a nurse interviewed in a recent BBC News report on compassion in healthcare. 

All major religions regard the concept of compassion as absolutely central to their beliefs. In Islam, Al-Rahman (“the compassionate one”) is the second of the ninety-nine names of Allah, in the Jewish tradition God is not only compassionate but actually is compassion, and the Buddha taught that compassion is the thing above all others that leads to enlightenment.

In my own Christian tradition, we have a person, Jesus Christ, who acts as a blueprint for a radical model of compassion. In light of the centrality of compassion in the world religions, it is natural to ask whether faith can contribute to the debates surrounding compassion and mental health and whether faith traditions have the potential to offer new concepts of compassionate care in the secular world.

Brotherhood and Sisterhood 

I was recently interviewed about compassion on the BBC Welsh-language radio station, Radio Cymru. Before we went on air, I had a long conversation with the interviewer about the word “compassion”. The problem was that there is no direct translation of the word in the Welsh language. There are Welsh words for pity, charity, empathy, sympathy, mercy, but no direct word for “compassion”. The English-speaking world is more fortunate – the English word “compassion” is the perfect word for expressing what compassion actually is. The word derives from the Latin words cum and pati, meaning ‘to suffer with’. In other words, when we have compassion for someone, we suffer with them – we truly feel their suffering.

The father of holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch reformed Christian, but, when the Jews began to be persecuted, he lined up with his Jewish neighbours and, like them, received a star of David to wear. While an extreme example, that was true compassion – a desire to stand alongside suffering people, so he could truly tell them he really knew how they felt in their persecution and suffering.

The Hebrew word for compassion is even more revealing. In the Jewish Scriptures, the most frequent word which can be translated “compassion” is the word rachamim. The word is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem, intimating that our compassion for those around us should reflect intimate familial bonds. The same link can be made in Islam, with the Arabic word for womb (rahem) serving as the root for the word for compassion (rahmah). In other words, the archetype for compassion is fraternal, as we view all as our brothers and sisters and we treat them accordingly. This is what the French Roman Catholic Cistercian monk Charles de Foucauld referred to as the “universal brotherhood” – that we treat others as if they had shared the same womb as we did, as if they were our own flesh and blood.

If we are to interpret compassion in this way, as the great monotheistic religions do, this is a huge challenge to those involved in mental health care. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest’.

Sharing sorrows 

In reality, most of us dwell in our non-compassionate and self-centred selves, which will always think of ourselves in opposition to others. As a popular, humorous bumper-sticker petitions God: ‘If you can’t help me lose weight, Lord, then please make my friends gain weight.’ Such an attitude is the polar opposite to compassion, and is related to what the Germans call schadenfreude – the pleasure at another person’s pain.

True compassion, instead, is centred on kinship, togetherness and a desire to stand alongside the other in all his or her experiences, whether painful or joyful. We are not made either to suffer or to celebrate alone, but rather for communion at both the highs and the lows of our life journeys. An old German proverb sums this up: ‘A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved; a joy shared is a joy doubled.’

This is something markedly different from empathy. We don’t simply feel empathetic when a family member is in pain. Rather, the suffering touches the core of our being. The Christian New Testament uses two different Greek words for compassion. The first word is eleeo, which is primarily used by those who appeal to Jesus for healing. The second word, splanchnizomai, expresses a deeper and more passionate form of compassion. In modern parlance it could literally be translated ‘to be moved in one’s guts’, and is used for Jesus’ own reaction to those who are pleading for healing. Jesus, therefore, responds to those who plea for basic compassion (eleeo) with a compassion that is intimate and intense (splanchnizomai).

The pain and suffering of others engenders not merely superficial sympathy in Jesus, but rather affects him in the depths of his being. Christians hold that Jesus was compassion incarnate – compassion made flesh – and it is this deep-seated compassion that led him to do something about the suffering with which he was confronted. I would suggest, then, that it is not necessarily the physical healing itself that reveals God in Jesus’ miracles, but that God is revealed in the compassion that leads to the cure. ‘The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away,’ wrote Henri Nouwen,but that God first wants to share the pain with us.’

Transcending Religion

Philip Pullman’s apocryphal retelling of Jesus’ life, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, vividly expresses the scandal of such radical compassion. Jesus is presented as having a twin brother, simply called ‘Christ’, who follows him around the Palestinian countryside, interpreting his teachings and his actions. He is particularly shocked at Jesus’ teaching about God’s compassion and grace. The parables Jesus tells (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the great feast, and so on) describe a universal love that is arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery, and the twin brother believes that this is simply a ‘horrible’ way of viewing love.

Furthermore, Jesus’ lifestyle reflects this ‘unfair’ concept of love. He mixes with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes, he claims to be ushering in a time of compassion by announcing the coming kingdom of God, and he condemns much of what was considered as virtue at the time. In Pullman’s tale, the whole situation seriously disturbs the scoundrel ‘Christ’, and so he completely rejects his twin brother as naive and delusional. Yet it is this very attitude that is the crux of both the teachings and the actions of Jesus – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political or ethnic differences.

Compassion not Pity 

This, of course, is all very different from mercy, pity, or charity. Often our culture and our media will confuse ‘pity’ and ‘charity’ with compassion. Charity, though, often serves to distance ourselves from those we aim to help. While responding to the basic human needs of the so-called less fortunate is necessary and right, charity still upholds a system that consolidates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ world-view, as even the term ‘less fortunate’ implies. We need to move beyond mere charity to a fundamentally new way of viewing our neighbours and the world around us. Likewise, pity also implies a separateness and it serves to distance us from ‘the other’.

The whole process of pitying places us in a position of power, superiority and strength, as we implicitly contrast ourselves with the weaknesses of the other person. Tom Shakespeare, an active campaigner for disability rights, reveals that his fellow activists in disabled movement are deeply suspicious of compassion. Yet it is pity, rather than true compassion, of which people are really suspicious, shown in the fact that Shakespeare mentions that the t-shirts of his fellow activists exclaim: “Piss on Pity”. After all, even the word ‘pity’ has close links to words that even send shivers down the spines of many people of faith these days, like ‘piety’ and ‘pious’. In other words, when we pity we often act as if we know better than the other person.

Compassion simply leads us to feel the suffering of another as if it were our own – we willingly enter the places of pain in people’s lives. As the epistle of Hebrews in the New Testament puts it: “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering”.

Faith certainly has much to offer debates on compassion in our society, not only in those discussions surrounding mental health, but also in wider healthcare, the judicial system, environmental policy, social welfare, and so on. There has been much talk about our society’s compassion fatigue. It may well be true that many people today have charity-fatigue or pity-fatigue, but compassion fatigue is something very different. Most people don’t have compassion fatigue, as most people haven’t actually grasped what compassion is and what it truly means.

A study of the word itself, as it is used in the world religions and in their religious texts, can help reveal what compassion demands of us and how that could radically altar the way secular society cares for those in need. In light of that word, it could be said, to adapt G.K. Chesterton’s famous phrase, “compassion has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”.

Revd Dr Trystan Owain Hughes is a Christian theologian, historian and author. Trystan lives with his wife and young family in Cardiff, where he is the vicar at Church in Wales Christ Church, Roath Park. He was previously the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University.

Trystan is also the is the Llandaff Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and speaks and writes widely about finding meaning in suffering. For more on compassion and faith, read Trystan’s book The Compassion Quest (SPCK, London 2013). 

Join us in Cardiff on November 18th at Compassionate Approaches to Mental Heath – a one day experiential event designed to inform, inspire and empower people living and working with mental distress.

Please book now to join us in Cardiff. Limited £35 tickets – sponsored by Welsh mental health and wellbeing charity Gofal – are available for people with personal experience of mental health issues, and their supporters.

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