Is There a Limit to Compassion?


A recent post by Rabbi John Rosove encourages compassion as a response to the heartless statements and decisions being made by President Trump. I ache to agree completely and without hesitation.  Instead I find myself struggling with the very question that the Rabbi answered by recommending compassion–a struggle that has consumed me since last November.

One of the first public conversations I had following the election of Donald Trump was in a setting where I expected compassion.  If not compassion, at least a verbal exchange that did not mimic the vicious campaign that had just ended. Instead, I heard this:

“He’s a piece of s***!”

In no way am I advising or trying to influence anyone who has been or may be directly hurt or abused by the blatantly racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic negative rhetoric or actions that have occurred and are occurring still.  I am not completely immune or safe from some of the rhetoric and actions.  But I am lucky enough to benefit from insulating factors that at least to date have kept me an arms length from harm.  I do not assume that I have any moral high ground.

Abuse can occur through public actions, statements and decisions, or privately at the hands of someone who is supposed to love you.  People who are forced to struggle through the after-effects of abuse, whether it was public or private, must have to wrestle with the question of compassion; struggle with what their emotional response is going to be. Compassion is not a concept limited to a small group of people.

Christians speak of turning the other cheek.

The Dalai Lama said:  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The Prophet Micah told the Jewish people they must do justice and be merciful.

I recall a Torah study session in which I participated some years ago, when the portion of the week contained the story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34).  A woman who was a therapist working with sex offenders made this statement:  “I doubt that anyone wakes up one morning when he is 5 years old and says, ‘I think I’d like to be a sex offender when I grow up.'”  I doubt Donald Trump woke up one morning when he was 5 years old and decided he wanted to be what he has become, either.

Still …..  What does it mean to be compassionate–in general and in this specific instance? Why should I struggle to be compassionate toward someone who demonstrates so little compassion for anyone else?

A common argument is that compassion, like forgiveness, may be less for the benefit of the offender than the one who was offended. Perhaps, to paraphrase A.J. Muste,

“There is no way to compassion, compassion is the way.”

Perhaps …  But I’m still struggling.



©Martha Hurwitz, 9/7/17

Inspired by Daily Word Prompt: finite



  1. A thought provoking post. Thank you.

    Yeah, I struggle with compassion, too, when I am on the “front lines” or the receiving end of abuse or hardship. But from a safe distance (time and space), I find I can eventually muster kinder thoughts toward the harmful individual or event. I would say that compassion and forgiveness go hand-in-hand.

    Just this morning, I had a similar conversation about finding the beauty in ALL things. From a comfortable and insulating distance, one doesn’t feel the ravages of storms, wars, and other devastating hardships. Therefore, it’s easier to say, “These dark events are the balancing act of life’s ebb and flow. They illustrate natural progression. Therefore, all is going as per the plan.”

    However, as regards the actions of bullies and hurricanes, and understanding their role in life’s ebb and flow: I still want to protect myself, to defend against, and to take whatever action I can to prevent or remove myself from the path. By practicing compassion, I will take the assaults less personally and hopefully be able to approach the issue with equanimity.

    That’s the theory, anyway. 🙂


  2. Thanks, Martha, for this thoughtful piece. Especially with regard to DT. I don’t have an easy answer. I do, however, believe that when I’m contemptuous of others, it’s a sign of self-contempt, and vice-versa. Most likely due to treatment and attitudes endured at the hands of others–and accepted as some unconscious level as the ‘truth’ about ourselves–even though it may not be true at all. In general, I find it easier to draw a line on bad behavior if I’m able to be compassionate toward myself. It’s a strange dance, though, never easy and never a solution to bad behavior–for which we and others remain accountable.


  3. Interesting post. Compassion isn’t always easy, and I definitely struggle with being reactive to certain types of behaviors and fairly reflexively wanting to “hit back”.At which point, I generally hear my mother’s voice in my head “don’t stoop to their level, or, be bigger than they are”. Drove me bats as a kid, and I struggle with it yet. One thing I have found that helps is to remind myself that at some level, someone’s behavior makes sense to them within the context of their life. I don’t agree with it, or accept it, but it does help me to separate the behavior from the person. And if that doesn’t work, I remind myself that it could be worse, I could have to be acting like the president.


    • It certainly is a struggle sometimes. It’s hard to accept that some behaviors make sense to someone else, when they seem so negative and ineffective, but it’s likely true that to them it does. Thank you for commenting.


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