Understanding Suffering and Compassion

By Young-Mason, Jeanine | Cross Currents, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Understanding Suffering and Compassion


Young-Mason, Jeanine, Cross Currents


Art and literature can be mirrors in which those who care for the sick can see the fugitive truth of compassion.

Art and literature provide essential knowledge for health-care professionals that cannot be found in ordinary health care literature and textbooks.

What is that essential knowledge? Why is it important? How can it make our life work more humane and fulfilling? This essential knowledge is reflective of a deeper understanding of suffering and its implications for health and healing. It is about the valuing of that suffering and the intrinsic human need for compassion. But, what is compassion? I believe compassion is born of wisdom and courage and can only be realized through devoted attention to its many facets and origins. It is most often misunderstood, misused, or dismissed as something merely soft and sentimental. (It is frequently confused with pity, empathy, and sympathy). The nature and work of compassion is more elusive and mysterious. But, it is not surprising that it is so often surrounded by such confusion -- and even dismissed. To understand compassion means to study the nature of suffering--the intertwining of moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical suffering. Compassion, like freedom, is a word whose meaning becomes clearer and finally clarified in practice, when known through desire and need, in hands-on exchange. Like freedom, compassion is a mutual experience given two or more people who act together for its realization. While freedom may seem an individual experience demanding that an individual act his or her way out of imprisoning conditions, including passivity, in fact, it too depends on action and reaction, an interchange of desires which form a passion for hope. This interchange is reflected profoundly and vividly in works of art whose artists have the depth and courage to depict and seek to understand the reality of suffering. No textbook can express what both art and a patient's actual voice can evoke and transfer understandings to those of us who seek to know how to relieve another of our common suffering. Thus, art and literature are mirrors for sharing in the action of compassion.

Selected works of Rodin, Tolstoi, Kurosawa, and Mason show us compassion in action and convince one of the importance of capturing "fugitive truth." This phrase "fugitive truth" is derived from the well-known Rodin-Gsell conversations on art, in which Rodin describes to Paul Gsell his method for capturing the state of soul of his subject in clay prior to carving in marble. Rodin tells us that he made many small, quick clay "sketches" of his models as they moved freely about his studio in order to capture what he called "fugitive truth." His premise was that these "sketches" caught the exteriorization of inner truths more accurately than working with a stationary posed model. His works validate these sculpting principles, as expressed to Gsell.

Generally the face alone is considered to be the mirror of the soul: the mobility of the features of the face seems to us the unique exteriorization of the spiritual life. In reality, there is not one muscle of the body that does not express variations within. Each speaks of joy or sadness, enthusiasm or despair, calm or rage. Outstretched aims, an unrestrained torso can smile with as much sweetness as eyes or lips. But in order to be able to interpret all aspects of the flesh, one must be trained patiently in the spelling and reading of this beautiful book.[1]

The question thus arises: how can we as students of the human condition undertake this necessary reading? How might we develop the aesthetic sense to appreciate the legibility of the human face and form more fully? The artist can help us here, for the artist "sees" the world through eyes trained to acutely appreciate color, light and shadow, surface and volume, and exteriorization of inner truths. In particular, Rodin's artistic techniques and insight offer the health care practitioner rich intellectual material for this study.

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