Compassion Means to Suffer With

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 12/13/2017

My children have been learning Latin, and it’s been intriguing to learn the origin of many English words. For example, the word “compassion” comes from the Latin word compassion or compassionis which means “to suffer with.” That struck me as an odd contrast to the name of the organization Compassion and Choices, which advocates for physician-assisted suicide (PAS). I’m assuming they believe they provide compassion by offering people the option to kill themselves with the assistance of a doctor.

I’m reminded, though, of an Oregon doctor I know who works with terminally ill patients, many of whom request PAS (PAS is legal in Oregon). Many of these patients also struggle with depression, feel alone, and fear the pain from the terminal disease they are facing. What he’s found is that when people are connected to their family, friends, and other community resources (churches, support groups, etc.) in significant ways, their depression subsides. When they have loved ones walking with them through their illness, their desire for PAS diminishes. If their doctor can also identify the source of the pain and help them understand it, then that helps them too. In other words, when people close to a patient are loving, caring, supporting, and sharing the person’s burden, that patient’s desire for PAS is diminished.

That’s precisely what the origin of compassion means, “to suffer with.” Obviously, people might define it differently today, but before our society swallowed the poison pill of believing that people aren’t inherently valuable, those facing a terminal condition were probably met more often with compassion by people who were willing to suffer with their loved one.

It would be refreshing to have society once again define compassion not as offering to help people kill themselves, but as offering to walk with them through a difficult time.