Passion: Love and Suffering
One of my favorite etymologies concerns the word “compassion,” a word that I hope you will agree is remarkably suitable for a Valentine’s Day reflection!
Compassion comes from the Latin, compassionem, meaning ‘sympathy,’ itself stemming from compassus, ‘to feel pity,’ which in turn comes from ‘com-,’ meaning ‘together,’ and ‘pati,’ namely ‘to suffer.’
That’s right. Our word ‘passion’ stems from the Latin word meaning ‘to suffer.’
Like one needs to sit down to hear that one.
And for those of you who always thought it awkward that Holy Week, the week before Easter, is also called “Passion Week,” there you go. passion=love=suffering.
So to have compassion is to suffer together.
In a relationship, then (even if bred by Hallmark, the season of love is in the air) to have compassion on your partner, or for that matter your parent, or your child, or your friend…or your enemy…or a stranger….is to suffer with them.
It is more than pity.
It is ‘pati,’ suffering.
It’s an interesting point. We tend to use the word regarding somebody who needs help, as well as concerning somebody who needs mercy (and by definition, therefore, who doesn’t deserve it: Only those who don’t deserve mercy need it).
I wonder if our understanding of the etymology of the word ‘compassion’ might shape our extension of it. That is to say that if somebody is enduring unfortunate circumstances, or who is really making lousy mistakes and choices, it might be because they are suffering. And so to have compassion on people is to learn about their sufferings, their troubles, their pain, their exhaustion, their isolation, and, well, assume it with them.
That also makes a person think about God’s relationship to us, I can’t help but wonder. After a tragedy I suffered in 2004, many well-meaning people sought to make sense of the event by telling me that God caused the accident, or that God must have wanted my husband to die. Such comments left me breathless.
Finally, someone offered the insight that God felt my pain more deeply than did I.
In other words, God felt compassion toward me.
In turn, there’s a fine Jewish notion that even God needs to be forgiven.
So perhaps, I’ve gotten to wondering, God needs our compassion. Just as humility moves us to offer compassion to those whose actions befuddle us, so too perhaps humility ought to move us to offer God compassion when God befuddles us.
Often enough, we know very little (or at least, not enough) of the stories of the lives or the motivations of the people or the fears and needs of those whom we are tempted to judge.
Goodness, how often are we, even in hindsight, clear about why we ourselves did or said any given thing?
Asking questions lends itself to the creation of compassion within us.
So too, just maybe, we can acknowledge that we know very little of what is going on behind the mirror through which we see dimly.
Questions could yield within us a dose of humility, a dose of compassion, toward even God.
I grant that com- -pati will probably not end up on a Hallmark card. But maybe a blog post is good enough.
What do you think?