A moment for compassion

Published on: Author: David Clark Leave a comment

In recent times I have been struck by the widespread use of the term ‘compassion’. It is being colonized by many groups, organisations  and discourses – sometimes with rather opposing purposes. Widely used by the supporters of palliative care, it has also been adopted by those that promote assisted dying. It is found in the mission statements of businesses of various kinds, as well schools and colleges. The photograph here shows how it has been adopted by one agency in New York.

Conscious of the growing interest in compassion relating to end of life issues, our team on the Wellcome Trust funded project Global Interventions at the End of Life has been teasing out some of the underlying assumptions about compassion and how it relates to various disciplines and perspectives. The result of these endeavours has just been published in a paper written by Shahaduz Zaman, Alexander Whitelaw, Naomi Richards, Hamiton Inbadas, and myself.  It is called A moment for compassion – emerging rhetorics in end of life care, and it is available on open access in the Journal of Medical Humanities.

Compassion is an emotional response to the suffering of others. Once felt, it entails an action component in response. We argue that, even where individuals ‘possess’ compassion or are ‘trained’ in it, there are difficulties for compassion to flow freely, particularly within Western society. We must then ask ourselves whether compassion can be created intentionally, without paying attention to wider structural aspects in society.
One consequence of globalisation is that countries in the global South are rapidly trying to embrace the features of modernity adopted by the global North. Whilst enthusiastic about the idea of ‘compassionate communities’, we argue that unrealistic assumptions have been made about the role of compassion in end-of-life care and that these aspirations must be tempered by a more structural assessment of potential.
The structural factors that inhibit compassion may prove far stronger than the religious, ethical and moral dimensions that promote it. Compassion may be hard to argue against, but without being tied to concrete action that makes wider reference to societal mechanisms, it runs the risk of being a compelling, but ultimately rather fragile form of exhortation.

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