• Compassion – a lack of appreciation or just a lack of knowledge?

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    Mike Wootton

    Mike Wootton

    I’ve seen a few comments in the media recently criticizing the West [the advanced economies]for “not doing anything for the Philippines”. This is incorrect, the West may have taken but it also gives and I would have thought was clear to the vast majority of people. Thinking about it a bit more though, perhaps it isn’t clear to the vast majority of people in this new world with its fast decreasing influence of actual facts on people’s opinions. Perhaps ordinary Filipinos don’t in fact know that many of the people of the world’s advanced economies do in fact care about other people suffering in the world and that when the Philippines has a natural disaster these ordinary people in the West go around collecting clothes, blankets, food and money to send to the victims of the natural disaster halfway across the world in the Philippines. I am not talking here about government aid or disaster relief, which during the Yolanda incident amounted to aid of over P10 billion from Western governments. I’m talking about the compassion demonstrated in times of distress by individuals in the advance economies to Filipinos who they do not know, or are ever likely to know.

    I have cited before the case of Mao Zedong who at the time of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 firmly rejected any aid or help from other nations despite that about 500,000 people lost their lives at a time when China’s rescue equipment was still of fairly rustic quality. “Shi li gung shen”—we will depend on ourselves, is a fundamental tenet of Mao thought. Mao was not a notoriously compassionate individual, so it can be inferred that his rejection of foreign aid was not because China was well equipped to deal with the problem but more because despite the challenges of dealing with a natural disaster of such magnitude he would have either worried that acceptance of the offers may have made him feel somehow indebted to the potential aid donors, or that he wanted to portray a picture to the outside world of total self sufficiency regardless as to whether or not they were able to save as many lives as could have been saved. Compassion requires an acceptance of interdependence.

    My mind goes back to an incident when I was living in China. I visited a market somewhere in the countryside. There was a narrow walkway between the stalls and there were literally thousands of people walking along it in both directions. In the middle of the walkway on the ground lay an old man with blood oozing from his head. The market-goers just stepped over him and walked on by. Nobody paused; nobody [other than I]showed the least concern.

    Compassion is a main tenet of all religions and of Confucian philosophy. These days however it seems to be in short supply. Neither Confucianism nor religion sat well with Chairman Mao. “Old thinking,” “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” “a revolution is not a dinner party,” etc, etc.

    Is compassion only the prerogative of those who can afford to be compassionate? That some people in the West can find the time to go around soliciting donations for people in distress half a world away without a thought as to gaining any personal benefit other than, perhaps, an occasional thank you from the recipients. Is there just a natural expectation, I wonder, that when disasters happen the international community of nations and the international community of people will arrive and give in order to help to relieve the suffering.

    One would hope that demonstrations of compassion either by giving donations or simply showing care and concern for those in difficult circumstances would be appreciated and valued. To be shown compassion is not a right, it is contributed selflessly by the giver without any expectation of a return.

    Religion exhorts people to be compassionate, but telling people to do it is just an instruction. Spending a cold rainy Saturday afternoon when you could have been going to a soccer match, going around the neighbourhood asking for old clothes to send to disaster victims is actually doing it. The more so it would be hoped that the second hand clothes in the Haiyan example would actually be used rather than be intercepted by eagle-eyed idealistic agents of government who then decide that old clothes from westerners are not good enough for people in awful distress who thanks to the typhoon have lost everything.

    When major natural disasters strike in less developed nations the advanced economies of the world will rush to help. That’s the way it is. They don’t do it to assuage a guilt complex. It’s just human decency. Problem is of course that there are so many needy causes around the less developed world and there are finite limits on what can be afforded.

    But of course I can write this because I am informed. I can research. I keep up with the news and I can form my own view. Many people cannot do or do not do any of those things but that does not detract from the fact that there are still quite a few people who do care about their fellow men and women. And finally let’s not forget that there are many Filipino professionals who volunteer their services to the less fortunate members of the Third World.

    Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com

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