It happened on a dog day when my car got mired in the traffic-hiccups of the Mount road in Chennai metro. My friend, a Good Samaritan, sitting beside me in the car, closed his eyes tightly when we saw an Ambulance whizzing past our car with its siren on.
I chuckled, thinking that my Good Samaritan friend must be having a sort of sound phobia. Poor fellow! ‘How long he’s been under this awesome spell?’ I wanted to taunt him, calling his phobia childish. But, then, so overcrowded was my mind with thoughts about the word compassion- I had to speak on ‘compassion to a bunch of school children- that I didn’t have either time or inclination to talk further to my friend about his phonophobia [a morbid fear of sounds including your voice]
Mercy, charity, consideration, kindness, humility and sympathy are the words the Oxford dictionary fish out to define compassion, but they miserably fail to catch up with my perception of the word. ‘To get to know about the meaning of compassion, should one need to refer to a dictionary. Not at all’, I think. However, I did this several time from morning to the time when I delivered the lecture. And, that brought to mind a volley of questions:
Didn’t I ever feel compassion in my life without knowing its meaning by the book?
Didn’t I ever see compassion in the loving eyes of my mom?; dad’s affectionate hands stroking my hair; sister’s kind prodding on my shoulder; friends’ camaraderie slapping on my cheek; and my wife’s passionate hug at times of distress.
So, this is what compassion is about. Coming out of my big and fat dictionary, and trying to find compassion in the words and deeds of my fellow human beings, I now begin to know that compassion is not an artificial fountain you see around in a park, but a natural waterfall that glides with gleam from the sympathetic and empathetic hearts of people.
That the circle of compassion has such a wide circumference and many strange dimensions came to my notice recently. Two men, walking ahead of me on the platform of a train station, stopped in their tracks after hearing a beggar cry for alms. Strangely, the first man’s hands, in a reflex, rummaged through his pocket, and scooped out all the coins he’d over there and placed them on the beggar’s plate. He then walked away nonchalantly, vanishing into the crowd.
The second man was slow and measured in his action. Like his counterpart, he, too, took out coins from his pocket, but counted them all before giving a rupee to the beggar. I was taken aback by the strange behavior of the two men, and later, when I narrated the incident to my psychologist-friend, he laughed and branded the first man having compassion in the heart and the second one in the head. All in lighter vein.
Compassion in the heart or the head, I found the two men got greatly moved by the plight of a beggar and offered him alms; though the first man showed his generosity liberally, the second one, being a little world-wise, in a somewhat measured way. Compassion is, therefore, not about the quantum of help you offer to the needy, but it’s primarily about melting down of heart seeing the sufferings of fellow creatures. Such melting downs, and moistness in human hearts, I’m sure, make the wheels of the earth move ahead, and distinguish us from wild animals.
While driving down home after my pep talk on compassion, I asked my friend why he had closed his eyes when he saw an ambulance, in the morning, speeding past our car. “Don’t you know it’s childish to have such a sound or noise phobia?” I laughed and pinched his thigh.
“You’re wrong,” my friend spoke with a little sneer. “An ambulance never gives me the creeps. And, I don’t have either sound or noise phobia. Yes … I do close my eyes, whenever I see an ambulance moving past my way, for, at such times I pray for those who’re inside the vehicle, for they may be struggling for life. This, I do instinctively, rather in a reflex. And, it’s not an acquired habit, but a family heritage.”
I now sat in my radiation and knew that my friend, by his gesture, had defined the word compassion more clearly and comprehensively. All the stuff I’d then presumed to be the meaning of compassion left me for good.