Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner

Good morning.

‘Compassion “key” to elderly care’ says one headline reporting the recommendations of the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People. So ‘key’ is this, it is suggested, that those who fail to show compassion should be barred from entering the health professions. Well, I doubt if anyone will come out against compassion, but I suspect that some may find themselves wondering what it is, why it matters, and, if we need more of it, how we can encourage it.

To be compassionate is, if we take the word to bits, to suffer with another, to feel their suffering almost as if it is our own. So someone can work hard to relieve suffering, and be highly skilled in doing so, without thereby exhibiting compassion – they could simply be doing their job and enjoying its challenges it presents. They show compassion only if their efforts to relieve suffering arise from and express a fellow feeling and sympathy. Now, we all want to be looked after by skilled professionals, but we would also like to be treated not only with professionalism, but compassion too – because another’s sympathy does something to comfort and console me, even when, or perhaps especially when, there is nothing left for professionalism to do.

What compassion is, and that it matters – that is the easy bit. But if it is the key to elderly care, how do we cultivate it in health professionals, and – if we think it is a good thing, in society more widely? The problem is that compassion doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing where argument, all by itself, will do the trick - I am not sure that I can persuade someone that they are bound to feel the suffering of another as their own if they just don’t. But even if argument doesn’t seem to the point, it doesn’t follow that we can safely assume that compassion is just a fixture, as if it is a natural and universal sentiment. At the time when Christ lived, Roman citizens attended games in the Coliseum in which the gladiators’ suffering was not merely a matter of indifference; it was more probably the very basis of the enjoyment of the spectacle. Compassion hadn’t been invented – nor the Latin word from which our word derives. So when, several hundred years later, the games came to an end, what caused their demise?

They had been defeated I suspect, not by argument, but, amongst other things, by some very good stories. In his teaching, Christ told stories (parables) of immense power - the mere mention of the good Samaritan or the prodigal son conjures in our minds images of compassion which resonate still. In virtue of these stories, the games became unthinkable – though they had been only too thinkable a little while before. The Commission’s report is surely right that compassion is vital to the best care of the elderly – and more widely too. But if so, we are challenged to continue to tell stories which will nurture and sustain compassion, since simply taking it for granted doesn’t look to be a very promising strategy.

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