Sep 28, 2009

Where's the Compassion?

September 3rd, 2009

Last month the convicted bomber of PanAm flight 103, a 747 jet aircraft that was blown out of the sky in 1988, scattering across miles of countryside in and around the small village of Lockerbie in Scotland, was set free on compassionate grounds. He had served a few years of his lifetime sentence in a Scottish prison and was released because he was about to die. The Government of Scotland cited the release as a humanitarian gesture as the man had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and they wanted to let him die at home with his family in Libia.

From western governments and populations there was an outcry. “Why would they release a mass murderer and let him go free. This man didn’t show compassion when he set the trigger that killed so many?”

I admit, I am of two minds. Yes, this man did commit a very serious crime and he showed little remorse when sentenced. However, we in the west espouse that we are the compassionate ones. We are the secularists and we base our societies on law and order, wisdom, moral standards, freedom and good government. Our society is also based, in part, on some Christian teachings, and we follow the goodness and compassion of many religions that preach the sanctity of life and peace with others. This man had been given three months or less to live with a diagnosis of prostrate cancer. Do we or do we not practice what we preach? Yes the law has to be based on the enormity of the crime but how civilized are we? As a civilized society we must have compassion and maintain those strong convictions no matter who challenges them. We need the "Wisdom of Solomon" to nurture the values we have, and hold onto them. For what are we without the values we espouse but a copy of those who fight us because of them.

A few years ago the case of Terri Schiavo garnered headlines around the world. This terminally ill, Florida woman was on a life support system supporting a body with brain damage so massive that there was no “quality” of life left in her. The conundrum was: should they pull the plug and let her die with some sort of dignity or keep her on life support and prolong the life of someone who would never again regain her brain functions. Her husband wanted to “pull the plug” and let her drift off to heaven. He said, “That is what Terri would want.” Her parents disagreed, they wanted her to live. The case went to court.

Even though there was no euthanasia laws in Florida, the court ruled for the husband. He was his wife’s guardian. He could choose to have the life support systems removed. After several court appeals by her parents the US Congress and President Bush got involved and voted to keep Terri alive. The Florida Court decision was then upheld by the Supreme Court of Florida and the Supreme Court of the United States, making a mockery of the Congressional and Presidential interference. Terri was eventually seperated from her support systems and she died a couple of weeks later.

My question is: where is the compassion? And in Terri’s case, where is the faith that religious people preach about? “There is a God,” they say. “And he is waiting for us in heaven.” Then why wouldn’t they want Terri to be in heaven with her God rather than living no life here on earth? She had been vegetating for years with absolutely no hope of regaining her consciousness. Why would these people want to prolong her “non” existence and suffering?

There was a mass outcry and the sanctimonious religious among us took over the debate and almost denied Terri’s release from a life that was no life at all. I must question the faith of these people. Surely, if God is compassionate then why can't we be, and let Terri go?

The Wikipedia dictionary describes compassion as: “a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. In ethical terms, the various expressions down the ages of the so-called Golden Rule embody by implication the principle of compassion: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

If this is so, then both the Terri Schiavo case and the Lockerbie bomber case are similar. Both test the virtue of our own compassion to help someone out of their suffering. In the Lockerbie bomber case we must also practice the virtue of forgiveness, and this seems to be the most difficult for many to do. For when confronted with the idea of retribution, revenge or vengeance, many seem to forget that forgiveness is also compassion, and at the heart of all religious learnings is: Love thy Enemy. Better still, respect thy enemy.

Then why can’t we be charitable and let the bomber go home to die with his family? It is in our compassionate philosophy to do so. And why can’t we help Ms. Schiavo die in peace? Obviously she was suffering. Let them both rest in peace.

ompassion is here, it lies within us all. It is only to be rediscovered and practiced by all who espouse a truly civilized society.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
The Dalai Lama

“Kindness gives to another. Compassion knows no 'other'.”
Tzvi Freeman, Jewish Rabbi

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Albert Einstein

“Give me knowledge, so I may have kindness for all.”
-Native American Proverb