On Transformative Compassion

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Peace is only very occasionally a quiescent state; for the most part, it is a struggle against destructiveness, the practice of resisting the terrible satisfactions of war.”

–Judith Butler speaking at 2014 PEN World Voices Festival

The recent trying political events in the Middle East are so dark and troubling that I lost the elation of Arab Spring and went in search of moral and ethical grounds — a vista where I can look at what is happening from a clear vantage point. Some may reach for religious writings, but I returned to philosophy for answers.

The first philosopher I chose was Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), whose works I have admired and who believes ethics was the first philosophy. Against the backdrop of the tragedy of the Holocaust, he produces a compelling ethical philosophy of the Other. In Totality and Infinity, he speaks of the Other’s alterity (its otherness) and the shock of the face-to-face encounter that demands an inescapable responsibility for the Other. He writes that the Other is “the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself” (39). We are constituted by the other as ethical subjects. In Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, he argues, “The face of a neighbor signifies for me an unexceptionable responsibility, preceding every free consent, every pact, every contract” (88).

I look to see what he had to say about the Middle East conflict, hoping for an original, illuminating perspective. Here is what I find in The Levinas Reader. In a 1982 interview, after of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Shlomo Malka asks, “Isn’t history, isn’t politics the very site of the encounter with the ‘other’, and for the Israeli, isn’t the ‘other’ above all the Palestinian?” To which Levinas responds, “My definition of the other is completely different. The other is the neighbour, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be. … But if your neighbour attacks another neighbour or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust” (294).

It looks like Levinas has a narrower vision of the Other than I had imagined. His ethics does not embrace all the possibilities and challenges of an other. Instead, he resorts to what seems obvious. Do we require a grand philosophical theory to come up with loving a neighbor that could be a kin, a friend? Every ethical system I know already has a similar statement in its foundation and most people believe in such a principle.

The notion of whether the Palestinian must be defined as the Other of the Israeli can be questioned. I like to believe that this binary is, itself, a temporary construct. But why would Levinas need to distinguish Palestinians from the neighbor? Even if he wants to define the Other more accurately, why doesn’t he clarify his notion in relationship to the Palestinians? Is the Palestinian not an other? Can they not be a neighbor or kin?

Even more disturbing is how quickly he moves into a discussion of the enemy and the neighbor that attacks. Is that how he sees the Palestinians? Are they the faceless enemy? Has he abandoned the tangible other for the abstract Other?

I was disappointed and must reconsider Levinas’s ethical argument or at least admit that he is unable to confront the depth of what the face-to-face encounter with an other could entail. Maybe it is easier to believe or articulate a strong ethics than to live by it.[1] Israelis laying out photos of Palestinians who have been killer, photo from Inna Lazareva Tweet As a writer, I decide to return to language itself, because that is my home. I look up “compassion.” There are good reasons why God is most associated with compassion and mercy in religions. In Jewish tradition, God is called the Father of Compassion. According to the Book of Exodus, God governs the world with the thirteen attributes of compassion or mercy. For the Muslims, the foremost attributes of God are compassion and mercy. Every prayer begins with “In the name of Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful.”

In Arabic, you have Raheem and in Hebrew you have Racham. There maybe different alphabets or languages but the root of compassion and compassionate is the same R-Ḥ-M in both languages and cultures.

I look up the etymology of the word compassion in English to find its roots and branches. The prefix, “com” is from classical Latin com as in “together, together with.” When I say the word, I hear the command “come passion.”

“Passion” comes from Latin passio meaning “to suffer” — the past participial stem of patī. It probably goes back to the older Proto-Indo-European base *pei meaning “to hurt.” Oxford English Dictionary tells us that its meaning began with specific religious connotations of Christ’s suffering on the Cross and martyrs in the tenth century. Later in the twelfth century, it expanded to a more general physical suffering.

Online Etymology Dictionary states that it replaced Old English þolung …, literally “suffering,” from þolian (v.) “to endure.” There in the heart of suffering is the seed of endurance. It is not just enough to suffer: we must also endure.

By the thirteenth century, the word “passion” starts having the associations with which we are most familiar, that of strong emotion and love. It also has a sexual connotation. Later in sixteenth century we get the added concepts of enthusiasm and zeal as well as being the object of the affection.

Passion also accommodates more negative emotions, such as anger and violent love. Its cognates include Sanskirt pijati meaning “reviles or scorns,” Old English fend meaning “enemy or devil,” and Gothic faian meaning “to blame.” All these darker sides reside along with suffering of the other at the roots of the word. Yet the word has grown beyond them and we now primarily identify it with its more positive significations.

I find great solace in the transformative power of this simple word. “Compassion” holds many lessons. By being able to understand and unlock the suffering of another, we absorb the pain and work toward healing. After all, we are invested in the same earth and we trade and consume the same air. In Golestān (1259), Sa’di, the great Persian poet, writes,

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit the right to be called human.

translated by Richard Jeffrey Newman

The word “passion” has also gone through the process of healing by absorbing the darker cognates. It is continuously transforming. For example, in seventeenth century passion was associated with affliction and disorder, but it no longer defines a disease.

Rais Bhuiyan after he was shot in the face on Sept. 21, 2001

from an NPR report on Rais Bhuiyan’s response to a hate crime

Compassion shows how we can move from a specific religious definition to something larger. It responds to the suffering and endurance of everyone. And the prefix “com” necessitates the presence of the face of an other. In this single word, I find the resources I need to have an ethics of the Other, one that demands from me to suffer and endure with an other – to love and see the other as an object of affection.

The word “compassion” continues to transcend and transform. With it, we have gone from an experience of pain and enduring to the love and zeal for an other.

PBS video on Irena Sendler

on Irena Sendler who helped save the lives of some 2,500 Jewish children

Like the face-to-face encounter that Levinas describes, compassion is not easy. It is not a greeting card or a donation we give to our favorite charity. Compassion goes beyond empathy or feeling sorry. It is not just for our good neighbor and would be kin or for the starving children far away.

Just like anger, revenge, or fear, compassion can transform us. It defines and makes us. It hails us and demands from us. It can uproot our world and make us risk our lives, say and do things unimaginable. It can make us produce arts of which we only dreamed. It can liberates us from the prescribed constructs of ourselves and make us do things we never though we were able. I am terrified by compassion’s calling, but it is what I need — what we need to survive.


1. A number of critics have questioned the political limitations of Levinas’ ethics of the Other, including Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler. See also Jason Caro’s “Levinas and the Palestinians.”

[For more information on Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies, see their facebook page, which is also the source of the featured image. Click on the other images for the source and additional information.]

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