Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves

Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves

Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves

Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves


Robert Wuthnow finds that those who are most involved in acts of compassion are no less individualistic than anyone else--and that those who are the most intensely individualistic are no less involved in caring for others.


In 1896 Jane Addams journeyed to Russia to visit Tolstoy. He was the famous writer. She was the internationally renowned founder of Hull House in Chicago. Their meeting was destined to be a clash of titans.

Years earlier Jane Addams had begun reading Tolstoy's books. Moved by his message of compassion, she decided to devote her life to helping the needy. Despite shyness, homesickness, and poor health, she gave up the comfortable life she had known as a child. She moved from the splendor of a country estate to the squalor of an urban slum. She gave up everything to help the poor.

Now she was arriving at Tolstoy's country estate, the faithful disciple on a pilgrimage to the master. Among the many thousands of his followers, she had been true to the calling. She had put emotion into practice. She had followed Tolstoy's call to identify totally with the suffering of the poor. And she had done it successfully. Her efforts had put her at the head of the settlement-house movement in America. She was known far and wide as a woman of compassion.

Tolstoy was not impressed. The great man approached her clad in humble working clothes, dirty from the hayfields where he had been toiling shoulder to shoulder with the peasants. Why was she dressed in such finery, he wanted to know, glancing distrustfully at the monstrous sleeves of her traveling gown. A whole dress for a peasant girl could be made from the cloth in those sleeves. He was horrified that she did not eat porridge, horrified that she was the absentee landlord of a farm in Illinois, horrified that she had a servant to prepare her meals.

Jane Addams was mortified. She went away deeply troubled by the barriers she had erected between herself and those she was trying to serve. Tolstoy was right. She cared for them, but she had not made herself their equal. She had tried to help, but had not truly identified with their suffering. Tolstoy and his . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.