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(c) Paramount Domestic Television

(c) Paramount Domestic Television

I had a friend who used to refer to Commander Deanna Troi, ship’s counselor of the Enterprise in Star Trek: the Next Generation, as “the pain lady.” Her main function, he claimed, was to cry out “Pain!” and take on an aspect of agony whenever some entity, on board or nearby, was suffering. (Actually, I think her main function is to state the obvious–“He’s lying, Captain,” about someone they encounter who is so shifty-eyed that only a masochist would buy a used car from him–which is why I’ve dubbed my wife’s phone’s GPS the Counsellor Troi of Navigation Software. As soon as we hit a traffic snarl, the GPS is there to inform us that there’s traffic in our location.)

Troi is in fact an empath, being half Betazoid; the people of the planet Betazed are natural telepaths. She can sense all emotion to an acute degree. And yet it’s her cry “Pain!” that lives in the memory.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera muses on the etymology of the word “compassion.”

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages–Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance–this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling” (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ-czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).

In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer . . . . In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the root “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but . . . . The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion–joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme. (19-20)

Do we actually experience compassion differently depending on the etymology of the word we use? Maybe we do. A native English speaker myself, I tend to think of compassion in the context of empathizing with someone’s suffering, although if asked to define it, I would say it encompasses all feelings, joyful as well as sorrowful.

If we wish to cultivate compassion–for example, in the children we raise or teach–maybe it would be more effective to speak of compassion in this wider context. If we only invite compassion for people when they’re suffering, compassion has a steep hill to climb. It has to conquer our natural desire to avoid pain. That is often what we do: we invoke compassion for suffering: “Oh, he fell down! That knee must really hurt.” “Imagine how she felt when you took the paints she was using.” Partaking of someone’s feelings becomes a chore. But if we invite compassion for all feelings–

“Look at the daddy in this picture. Doesn’t he look like he loves that baby?”

“Mommy’s listening to music on those headphones. You can see how relaxed she is.”

“The kids are laughing! They must be feeling very happy.”

–then children learn that feeling others’ feelings, far from being always painful, can be a source of great pleasure. It’s an act of imagination, engaging and fascinating, which sometimes does carry us into experiences we would rather not have, but also brings us happiness that we would not have experienced had we remained shut in our own minds.

Kundera suggests that love built on the Latin-derived compassion is “an inferior, second-rate” feeling barely deserving of the term love: “To love someone out of compassion means not really to love,” whereas the compassion that is co-feeling, “in the hierarchy of sentiments, . . . is supreme.” I’m less inclined to rank the feelings, but as a pragmatic matter, I’d like to cultivate co-feeling as a form of compassion that is both more complete and easier to embrace.

(c) Paramount Domestic Television

(c) Paramount Domestic Television


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