Maverick Citizen


When we feel compassion, we reckon with our own humanity


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

What is compassion? According to psychologists, it is ‘the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help’.

As the Middle East crisis has been unfolding, what has been recurring in my mind is the issue of compassion and its recipients. I have also been thinking about the understanding of human suffering in relation to one’s self and those who mirror what each one of us may consider humanness.

The American-Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön says: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity.”

I understand this to mean that those in need of compassion are not to be seen as coming from a position of weakness and those offering it from a position of strength. It is just an understanding that it is part of the human condition.

Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu took the definition of compassion further than mere consciousness, saying: “If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!”

But what happens when you do not see a reflection of yourself in those who are suffering and, as a result, do not experience a desire to act or help?

Is your humanity intact?

My understanding of compassion is such that I do not need to have gone through similar hardship and suffering to recognise the hardship and suffering of others as valid and worthy of action.

Our shared humanity already plays the role of putting us in alignment. What has been interesting to watch, though, is how people grapple with who is automatically seen as worth helping.

In this moment, as we watch with horror the humanitarian crisis raging in the Middle East, we have unwittingly occupied seats in a theatre of the macabre, where fractious displays of sympathy and compassion are being disproportionately apportioned.

There should be no question that the answer to this crisis should be an outcry for the protection of all civilians facing the violence of the conflict, and yet this is not the case. Human pain cannot be ranked and weighed; it is the same the world over and deserves a consistent response.

Again looking to Chödrön’s definition of compassion, what is perhaps haunting is the inward reckoning that comes when we “know our own darkness”, which means acknowledging that we all have our own faults, which is what makes us human.

This is why, as the well-known American professor and author Brené Brown (who is also a scholar of Chödrön) says, compassion is also “the ability and willingness to empathise without judgment and face pain. Compassion means looking at your own actions with understanding rather than anger and doing the same for others.”

If we are to go with Brown’s assessment, that would mean accepting that our actions do not exist in a vacuum, and they cannot be exceptionalised when met with a response. The value, then, to be found in this emotion is an opportunity to reckon with our own humanity. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 21 October 2023


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Heleen Bron says:

    Thank you, Zukiswa! From an article like this you can. learn that there is a way that one doesn’t need to judge, only to recognize ‘yoour own darkness/ faults’. An article like this makes my day so good and also worthwhile to keep it in my archives .

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