Gaining Wisdom Through Compassion

The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion.  — Bahá’u’lláh

Wisdom is the virtue that allows us to recognize what virtue is needed in any given situation.  Put concisely, wisdom allows us to squeeze maximum spiritual gain out of minimum spiritual pain.  It allows us develop our virtues efficiently and effectively.  Common wisdom is that wisdom only comes through experience—lots and lots of experience.  We need to be able to try many different responses to the same type of tests to see what works and what doesn’t.  Wisdom, it seems, comes from trial and error.

But does it have to?

We all learn through experience. The more experiences we have, the more mistakes we make.  The more mistakes we make, the more we learn and the wiser we become. But life is only so long, and many mistakes are fatal. If I want to learn a lot and grow old, then I would be wise to learn as much as I can from other people’s experiences. Through consultation—sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences with people verbally—I can experience the world through other people’s minds. Through compassion, however, I can experience the world through other people’s hearts. I can learn how to identify the presence or absence of virtues in different situations. I can come to feel passion for the virtues that other people love, and grieve the absence of virtues that other people value.

The mind may be able to guess what virtues are present, but it is the heart that is specifically designed to be able to sense the presence and absence of virtues.  Your mind might be able to guess that a brown liquid in a cup is coffee, but without the sense of taste or smell, it would be difficult to prove.  Likewise, there are the virtues that should be present in a situation, and then there are the virtues that actually are.  Our hearts, through our emotional response to a situation, tell us what virtues we perceive.  But it is only through compassion that we are able to experience the emotional response to the virtues that someone else may perceive.

We have all had the experience of expecting a person to react emotionally to a situation in one way, only to discover that they responded completely differently.  People’s emotional perspective is just as unique, just as personal, and just as filtered as their intellectual perspectives. It is not that these people are being “illogical.”  It is that their experience and filters are causing them to sense the presence or absence of a different set of virtues.  The only way to understand them—and increase your level of wisdom in the process—is to develop compassion.

Compassion, then, is the virtue that allows us to identify and appreciate a wide range of virtues through our emotional connection with other people.  When we feel compassion for people who suffer from poverty, sickness, drug addiction, abuse, and other personal loss, then we acquire a great longing for the virtues that would help ease their pain—without ourselves having to suffer from their difficulties.  This is a kind of wisdom that no amount of talk will provide.

The capacity for compassion does not only apply to sadness. To feel what another person feels and be compelled to take action can also apply to hope, love and wonder; to courage and conviction; to faith and joy.

When we see a mother cry at the loss of her son, do we not cry? When we see a child laugh in delight and wonder, do we not laugh? Compassion allows us to benefit from everyone’s experience and be uplifted by anyone’s joy. It connects us to the entire human race.

Note: This is an excerpt from 4 Tools of Emotional Healing and Love, Lust and the Longing for God.