Compassion is what happens when a loving heart meets suffering. Following the chemical attack in Syria and American strikes, what is a compassionate response?

Weekend Word, BBC Wales 07.04.2017

Sometimes words fail. I won’t try to evoke what we’ve seen this week of the chemical weapons attack in Northern Syria – now followed by the American military response. Lets stick with the sickness that most of us felt in the pit of our stomachs when heard of the attack itself, and outrage at the cruelty that’s magnified by seeing children among the victims.

Just imagine what those people have been through. You’re living under a dictatorship. Then comes a revolution which is followed by chaos, civil war and then maybe religious tyranny. You can’t get out. Then the bombs start falling again, and then, while your town’s asleep, come the chemicals.

Where does this leave us personally? Feeling helpless, we’re tempted to ignore it, or take it in as just another item of bad news. Life goes on, and there’s little point in getting upset for the sake of it. But as a Buddhist I think the value of engaging emotionally with a story like is when it prompts us to care. For Buddhism, compassion is what happens when a loving heart meets suffering. The meeting brings a desire to act and, in fact, there are things we can do to help the Syrians, especially the refugees.

But the world’s suffering always outstrips our capacity to respond. So then what? I know many people in caring professions who burn out, experience compassion fatigue and maybe become cynical.

Buddhists are often accused of withdrawing from suffering to focus on inner happiness, but a key figure in many forms of Buddhism is what we call the bodhisattva: a being who renounces absorption in Enlightenment in order to help others. Being committed to boundless compassion, a bodhisattva sets him or herself an impossible task with the solemn commitment: ‘Though living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.’

The great moral heroes and heroines – the saints, freedom fighters and humanitarians – didn’t turn away from suffering when they saw it. They focused instead on what was possible, refusing to limit the scope of their compassion, working tirelessly for a better world, even though they knew their vision couldn’t possibly be fulfilled.

Whatever our work and whoever we love, the suffering we’ve seen in Syria calls us to love more greatly and more widely, to care beyond our capacity, and to do more than we currently think possible.