When participating in a spiritual paradigm of any persuasion, one is likely to hear about compassion in a relatively early phase of the process. Compassion, it is said, is highly important to developing spiritually and also to develop as a basically decent human being. Yet, most non-spiritual understandings of the word and a few spiritual understandings of the word overlook a central piece of understanding: You can’t be choosy with your compassion.
What does it mean to be choosy with your compassion? Well, first it might be good to understand what compassion is. Empathy is feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy is not compassion either, as it is something like “being in the same state as” the other person. Compassion is not necessarily feeling what someone else feels and it certainly isn’t being in the same state as someone else. Rather, compassion is taking action or valuing action that ends or eases suffering.
So, if we are being choosy with our compassion, we are saying that someone deserves to suffer more than someone else, which winds up being a basic spiritual untruth. The word “deserves” is the problem. No one deserves anything. However, someone may bring consequences down upon their heads. To the extent that we can do something to ease those consequences, we should.
All of this sounds good, right up until we find ourselves facing a predicament with something utterly repulsive—such as a serial killer. From a spiritual point of view, we are obligated to not only ease the suffering of the victim, but also to ease the suffering of the killer—who-it can be argued—is suffering pretty seriously since their view of reality is warped enough to become a serial killer.
This is where most people start becoming really, really choosy with their compassion. The serial killer, the thinking goes, deserves what is coming to him or her. Since he caused pain, he should suffer the same kind of pain—that’s simply a matter of justice. However, such a calculation when applied to ourselves we might find to be too brutal—the serial killer on some level is just a more misguided version of many of us and would we want “justice” leveled at us in all of its splendor? Surely none of us would be found worthy if justice carried the day?
Such situations confound the public, because it cries for justice while forgetting the humanity of the person it wants justice to be enacted upon. It forgets what it would be like to have this particular person as a wife, sister, daughter, son, brother, or husband. It only sees what the person did in the sense of what was “wrong” and then it demonizes that person in a very voyeuristic way. Yet, when the moment of punishment arrives in the form of death penalty, it does not want to see that—not in uncensored reality. Death is made to be more “humane”.
So, society becomes very, very choosy with its compassion, which is a spiritual no-no. What are we to do when faced with a situation where justice and compassion appear to diverge?
The first thing to realize is to understand that compassion and justice DON’T actually diverge unless people make them diverge. There are simply consequences for actions taken. Where things become unbalanced is when people forget the perpetrator is a human being. There should be no delight taken in another human being’s decision to suffer. There certainly should not be a “revenge motive” involved in deciding what to do with someone who has made a choice that caused suffering not only to themselves, but others. If death is sought, it should not be from a perspective that paints the perpetrator as a “monster” or otherwise dehumanizes them—and if people desire death for that person, they should have to watch it for what it is—not have it sanitized. Why? Because it reminds us that we are all human and all connected, and when we try to “pretty up” what we ourselves are doing, we only succeed in disconnecting ourselves from our own compassion. An execution isn’t meant to be pretty. It isn’t meant to be pretty precisely because it is a vile thing to have to do.
After someone is executed or imprisoned, it ought to be our duty to not just remember the victims and their family, but also the perpetrator. After all, the victims are dead and their suffering is over, whereas the family that is left behind is suffering and knows it, the killer is suffering and oftentimes has no clue that he or she is actually suffering. Of the two, the one who is greater need of compassion is the more ignorant. It is not compassion in the sense of “Let’s go make the killer feel better” but compassion in the sense of feeling and understanding how someone could become so completely and utterly confused and asking the universe to help them see themselves more clearly.
Why is that so important? Because when we don’t understand how and why someone could become so completely and utterly confused, we ourselves become it when it comes time to administer justice. In that the killer desired someone’s death and plotted it, the family does the same for the killer. The family feels justified in their actions, and the killer feels justified in his or hers. Without realizing how the perpetrator could become so confused, we become it ourselves and disturb our own spiritual equilibrium. It may be that the perpetrator is so dangerous the only solution is to kill them. It may be that justice demands such an action. However, no delight should be taken in such a course. If anything, it should only serve as a sad reminder of what people can become when they defile their humanity. It should not serve to make us lose hope in humanity, for that would be the same as spiritually “sinning” against ourselves, but it should serve as an example of how someone confused enough can infect others with their suffering and how we are all connected whether we wish to be or not. We can’t be choosy with our compassion strictly because being choosy with it is a lie. We will feel each other’s suffering—one way or another.