The principle of compassion and the Covid-19

Covid-19 is also a sign and a warning to us: we cannot wage war on Mother Earth as we have done up to now, for she is destroying the biological basis that sustains her and all other life forms, especially human life.

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Through Covid-19 Mother Earth is moving a counterattack against humanity as a reaction to the overwhelming attack she has been suffering for centuries. She is simply defending herself. Covid-19 is also a sign and a warning to us: we cannot wage war on her as we have done up to now, for she is destroying the biological basis that sustains her and all other life forms, especially human life. We have to change, otherwise she might send us even more lethal viruses, perhaps even an indefensible one against which we could do nothing. Then we would be as a species seriously endangered. It is not without reason that Covid-19 has struck only humans, as a warning and a lesson. It has already led millions to their deaths, leaving a via-sacra of suffering to millions more, and a lethal threat that could strike everyone else.


The cold numbers hide an ocean of suffering for lives lost, love broken, and projects destroyed. There are not enough tissues to wipe away the tears of the dear relatives or friends who have died and who have not been able to say a final goodbye, or even to celebrate their mourning and accompany them to the grave.


As if the suffering produced for a great part of humanity by the prevailing fiercely competitive and uncooperative capitalist and neoliberal system, was not enough. It has allowed the richest 1% to personally own 45% of all global wealth, while the poorest 50% get less than 1%, according to a recent report by Crédit Suisse. Let’s listen to the person who best understands capitalism in the 21st century, the Frenchman Thomas Piketty, referring to the Brazilian case. Here, he says, we have the highest concentration of income in the world; the Brazilian millionaires, among the richest 1%, are ahead of the oil millionaires of the Middle East. No wonder the millions of marginalized and excluded that this disastrous inequality produces.


Again, the cold numbers cannot hide the hunger, the misery, the high mortality of children and the devastation of nature, especially in the Amazon and other biomes, implicated in this process of plundering natural wealth.


But at this moment, due to the intrusion of the coronavirus, humanity is crucified and we hardly know how to take it down from the cross. It is then that we must activate in all of us one of the most sacred virtues of the human being: compassion. It is attested in all peoples and cultures: the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to share their pain and thus alleviate it. 


The greatest Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, points out in his Summa Theologica that compassion is the highest of all virtues, because it not only opens the person to the other person, but it opens the person to the weakest and most in need of help. In this sense, he concluded, it is an essential characteristic of God.


We refer to the principle of compassion and not simply to compassion. The principle, in a deeper (philosophical) sense, means an original and essential disposition, generating a permanent attitude that is translated into acts but is never exhausted in them. It is always open to new acts. In other words, the principle has to do with something belonging to human nature. For this is how the English economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) could put it in his book on the Theory of Ethical Sentiments: even the most brutal and anti-communitarian person is not immune to the power of compassion.


Modern reflection has helped us to rescue the principle of compassion. It has become increasingly clear to critical thinking that the human being is not only structured on intellectual-analytical reason, which is necessary to account for the complexity of our world. There is something deeper and more ancestral in us, which appeared more than 200 million years ago when mammals erupted into the evolutionary process: the sensitive and cordial reason, which means the capacity to feel, to affect and be affected, to have empathy, sensitivity, and love.


We are rational but essentially sensitive beings. In fact, we build the world on emotional ties that make people and situations precious and valuable. We do not only inhabit the world through work, but through empathy, care and love. This is the place of compassion.


Buddhism has worked this out better than us Westerners. Compassion (Karuná) is articulated in two distinct and complementary movements: total detachment and essential care.  Detachment means letting the other be, not framing him, respecting his life and destiny. Caring for him implies never leaving him alone in his suffering, getting affectively involved with him so that he can live better by bearing his pain more lightly.


The terrible thing about suffering is not so much the suffering itself, but the loneliness in suffering. Compassion consists in not leaving the other alone. It means to be with her, to feel her suffering and anguish, to tell her words of comfort and to give her an affectionate hug.


Today, those who suffer, cry and are discouraged by the tragic fate of life need this compassion and this deep humanitarian sensitivity that is born of sensitive and cordial reason. The words spoken that seem so ordinary gain a new sound, reverberate inside the heart and bring serenity and raise a small ray of hope that everything will pass. The departure was tragic, but the arrival in God is blessed.


The Judeo-Christian tradition testifies to the greatness of compassion. In Hebrew it is "rahamim" which means "to have guts", to feel the other with deep feeling. More than feeling, it is identifying with the other. The God of Jesus and Jesus himself have shown themselves to be especially merciful, as revealed in the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).


More than ever before, in the face of the devastation wrought by Covid-19 on the entire population, without exception, it becomes urgent to live compassion with the suffering as our most human, sensitive and solidary side.


- Leonardo Boff wrote with Werner Müller the book Compassion & Care Principle, Vozes 2009; Covid-19 Mother Earth Strikes Back at Humanity, Vozes 2020.

(Translation edited by ALAI).


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