butter or clay?

Written by  rabbi michael schiffman

art-butterCompassion is one of the most important of character traits, yet its an attribute that comes from learning, mostly in the school of hard knocks. People who have compassion reflect the face of God, because He Himself is compassionate to all.

Compassion is what we feel when we identify with the pain, and suffering of others. It’s the ability to emotionally put yourself in someone else’s skin and feel what they feel. It's having empathy and sympathy for the suffering of others. It's one of the most important of the middot, yet it's an attribute that comes from learning through our own experiences instead of by reading.

It’s hard to feel the pain of others, if you have felt no pain. Unless you have felt it, you have no idea what other people go through. This reminds me of the passage in The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, where Reb Saunders says,

One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, … by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . . ” Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.” (The Chosen, P.278ff).

People say I am a fairly compassionate person. Being compassionate came at a high price. I identify with the suffering of others because of the intensity of emotional pain I’ve been through. There is an emotional pain that is far worse than any physical pain, a pain almost unsurvivable. I can imagine the pain of others and I hurt for them. Given the choice, I would rather have never had pain, but if you develop compassion after going through pain, it makes the painful experience somewhat redemptive. Feeling for other people, helps them. It aids in their healing and dealing with their own pain.

Not everyone who goes through painful experiences develop compassion. Some become bitter. Some become self-centered. How many times have you met someone embittered by their experiences and seem to take it out on everyone around them? They don’t give a damn about anyone else.

People with a propensity for compassion will feel for others and have mercy. They give a damn about the suffering of others. What kind of person looks with indifference on the suffering of others? People who have no heart and no soul. That’s what the Nazis did. Without compassion, we turn into something frightening, capable of great evil, because we just don’t care that others suffer. Having compassion makes us more “human,” or in other words, what we consider the best of humanity. Without it, we aren’t very different from machines: cold and unfeeling, disconnected from the lives of others.

Why is it that some people become kind and compassionate when they have experienced pain and suffering, while others become bitter, cold and indifferent toward the suffering of others even though they have had their own painful experiences? It is because compassion is ultimately a heart issue. If you take butter and put it in the sun, it melts. If you take clay, and put it in the sun, it gets hard and dry. Same sun. Different substances. If a person’s desire is to be compassionate, his response to pain will be to grow in compassion. If their choice is to be angry or bitter, it will make them hard-hearted. It’s not a genetic thing. It’s a choice we make. How do we respond to the pain life brings? It will determine what kind of people we become.

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