Monday, April 14, 2008

bitter? i hardly knew 'er!

when i graduated from high school in 1981, someone gave me a dictionary. i forget who. it's a webster's new collegiate 150th anniversary edition. i still have it, and this afternoon i looked up two words i'm hearing a lot today: compassion and bitter.

here's what the ol' webster's says about compassion:
compassion: sympathetic consciousness of other's distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
what i find interesting is there's nothing in that definition about religion, or god, or jesus, or faith. as far as i know, an atheist or agnostic can be just as compassionate as a catholic or a jew. but the word compassion seems to have been co-opted by the religious community. george w. bush ran for president (and nearly won) as a compassionate conservative, a philosophy based in part on the christian doctrine of original sin. i'm not sure how compassionate you could say the president has been toward the folks we've tortured.

last night, CNN broadcast the compassion forum, hosted by messiah college in grantham, pa. the forum was a chance for the presidential candidates to "discuss how their faith and moral convictions bear on their positions on...important (campaign) issues." i didn't watch, but i wonder if any of them actually talked about compassion.

then there's bitter. here's what the good book (webster's, that is) says about bitter:

bitter: 1 a: having or being a peculiarly acrid, astringent, or disagreeable taste suggestive of an infusion of hops that is one of the four basic taste sensations -- compare salt, sour, sweet b: distasteful or distressing to the mind 2: marked by intensity or severity: a: accompanied by sever pain or suffering b: being relentlessly determined c: exhibiting intense animosity d: (1) harshly reproachful (2) marked by cynicism and rancor e: intensely unpleasant esp. in coldness or rawness 3: expressive of severe pain, grief, or regret.

all the hubub (bub) this week is about barack obama's recent statement that people in small towns are bitter about losing jobs and the economy going sour, and in their bitterness they cling to guns, religion, and antipathy towards immigrants and people who are different from them.

which makes sense to me. when you're struggling in some way, you turn to things that are meaningful to you. touchstones, constants: sunday school. the pump-action remington 870 on the closet shelf.  disdain for the happy guy clipping the hedges. hatred of the gay couple at last week's pta meeting.

but i wondered, "are people living in small towns really bitter?"

let's ask my dad! he's 77 and he lives in waterford, wisconsin: population 4,828. that's a small town, right? i called tonight, and told him i had a few questions. "shoot," he said, "hit me tone!"

T: okay dad, are you bitter?

D: (little pause) no.

T: do you cling to guns, or religion?

D: do i what? do i cling to what? i didn't understand that. cling to? no, i'd have to say no. i don't understand what cling to means, so...but go ahead son. what's next? lay it on me.

T: how do you feel about immigrants?

D: (beat) how long a statement do you want?


i want immigrants to go through everything my grandparents went through. if they pass the test, great.

T: do you know anyone who's different from you?

D: yes.

should i elaborate? no...i don't have to elaborate on that.

T: can you define compassion?

D: caring. caring for someone.

T: thanks dad. thanks for answering those questions.

D: well, i hope i enhanced your survey.

T: i think your answers were simple and straightforward.

D: i meant them to be.


  1. The root of compassion is the Latin "passio", which is to suffer. Thus the original meaning of com-passion is to suffer with. This is why Jesus was so often said to have compassion - as God made man he suffered with us. It also relates to doctrines surrounding the crucifixion, namely that all humanity was taken to the cross in Jesus - all suffered with him and are thus raised with him. It's a word rooted in, not co-opted by, Christian theology. If anything, the word has been softened in modern use to mean generally feeling squishy about people in trouble.

    This actually makes the Shrub's use of the word even more foul...he can hardly be said to have suffered with anyone. See also Katrina. Then again, I'd hardly call George W. Bush a least not in any meaningful sense of the word.

  2. jesus, jesus, jesus!

    first off, i have no squishy feelings. period. my feelings are all of the non-squishy persuasion.

    co-opting. i am not here to argue the word's origin. i have a high school edumacation, and i didn't do my bible studies. so you've left me in the dust with words like...doctrines! (i barely have health insurance, much less a good doctrine.)

    but i found this from the online OED (much more concise than the OED on my bookshelf. and you don't need that pesky magnifying glass):

    1340, from O.Fr. compassion, from L.L. compassionem (nom. compassio) "sympathy," from compassus, pp. of compati "to feel pity," from com- "together" + pati "to suffer" (see passion). Loan-translation of Gk. sympatheia.

    they define it and give us the etymology without mentioning jesus. what about someone who doesn't believe in jesus? or someone who worships david hasselhoff? can they not feel compassion? that david hasselhoff worshipper must!

    the origin of the word is not the point. the point is how the word is used today. even if it is rooted in christian theology (which it may or may not be) it doesn't ONLY apply to christians. seems to me like some sects of religion, and certainly some political factions that ally themselves with religion would like it to.

    religion doesn't have a copyright on morals, values, or definitions. and in my estimation, equating these words or morals solely with religion excludes many of your friends and neighbors.

  3. evolution! evolution! evolution!
    I'm not at all sure what the root of the word compassion has to do with the discussion. And I'm equally unsure as to which individuals are Christian and which are not. It's really hard to tell these days. But I try to avoid making that judgement. It just doesn't seem to make any difference to me.

    What I do understand, however, is compassion. I wish I had more of it. I'm not sure whether the individuals from whom I have witnessed compassion are Christian or something else...or atheists. And they weren't "squishy".

    As was said, equating compassion with religion (e.g., Christianity) excludes friends and neighbors...and even, I might guess, lots of folks who are not my friends or neighbors. I think there must be some folks out there who are not Christian, not my friends, not my neighbors, yet somehow find it possible to be compassionate (not to be confused with being squishy).

    That's my two cents worth. I'm going to have a glass of chardonnay now and get squishy.

  4. I didn't intend to suggest that compassion was limited to Christians or to people of any faith of any kind. I'm sorry if my comment seemed to imply that. I don't know your mood when you typed your reply (one of the joys of typed communication, a lack of tone) but it reads very angry. I am sorry if I made you so. I was an atheist for many years, Tony, and I know full well that morality is not the sole property of the church.

    My point was that the word was not co-opted by religion, but rather (as I tried to say in my final point) carries a meaning often forgotten by people who claim religion as their own, as well as by those who profess no religion at all. You may not like Jesus (and I'm guessing from your opening salvo that you do not) but the association is there.

    I didn't click "comment" to sell you on religion. I really couldn't care less what your system of beliefs might be (Christians aren't all frothing evangelicals, you know). I commented because I felt it was worth discussing that the word you were analyzing has more punch than just "sympathetic consciousness of other's distress together with a desire to alleviate it." It carries a history of meaning that has shaped its use. Those meanings were part of the word when it was adopted from Latin into English, and they're part of how and why it has been handed down to us. You may not worship the figure central to those associations, and I'm not trying to convince you to do so, but exploring the sort of cultural weight a word carries is no bad thing.

    As I mentioned above, I also tried to suggest that someone deeply and closely associated with Christianity, the so-called poster boy for Jesus, can misuse a word that is so meaningful to his professed religion.

    In all of this, and most likely in this post, I have apparently failed. I'm sorry.

  5. no, no, no!

    aaron, no apology necessary. i TOTALLY appreciate your original AND follow-up comments. (i love the discussion, and think it's all totally worthwhile.) my reply wasn't meant to be angry, but certainly had some umph behind it.

    perhaps i cast too wide a net in my original post. certainly the word "compassion" has not been co-opted by ALL of christianity. (i tried to sharpen that focus in my first reply.) my personal feelings about jesus aside (and you might be surprised) my initial point remains: no matter the words origin or history, it "belongs" to no one. even though, in my estimation, it is often used as though it only applies to persons of faith.

  6. Oh...whew! I have to admit feeling pretty crap for a while. I was afraid I'd gone and pissed off a friend, or uncovered some really deep hurt. In reality I uncovered my own anxiety, formed of bad experiences on blogs. Anyhow, I'm glad to chalk it up to toneless typing!

    I wanted to add also, that regardless of a word's history a) though it may be rooted in a particular tradition it can always grow beyond its roots and b) the concept to which it points is innocent of the meanings a word accumulates. i.e. - the word compassion may be woven deeply into the Christian psyche, but the actual attribute belongs to all people. Words and the things to which they point are not the same thing. A rose by any other name and all...



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