Three words from “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”.
In September 1995, The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”. In the middle of that document is a list of principals that are likely to lead to happiness, including “respect, love, [and] compassion.”
As I considered these three words today I was surprised to note my brain arguing with itself. “Respect and compassion are part of love,” argued one part; “this is a redundancy.” “Not so,” countered another part; “these are three separate notions.” It is this second voice I want to give room in this post.
The word “respect” is from the Latin re-specere “look back”. It’s modern meaning dates from the mid 16th century, and none of the synonyms I can think of have a more revealing etymology. I find a useful way of distinguishing respect is to ask “given the choice, do I think I could edit X and improve it?” If I respect your choice I am not confident it wasn’t the best choice. If I respect your horn playing I cannot indicate an unmitigated improvement.
There are many people whom I respect but for whom I feel neither love nor compassion. Quintessence may be found in evil masterminds and unknown geniuses. There are others who inspire love and compassion but not respect, such as infants.
The word “love” has pretty much always meant love. I find a practical descriptor of love is “what I love I would sacrifice my own comfort to serve.” Hence I love constitutional government and members of my family but not the political party system or any kind of food or entertainment.
I love and respect constitutional government. I love and have compassion for infants. I also find that I naturally feel some love for most people I meet, while respect requires knowledge and compassion requires thought. It is also quite common for me to feel far more love than I feel respect and compassion toward people who are succumbing to temptations I myself do not face. However, I cannot seem to think of any particular example that I love without any respect or compassion.
The word “compassion” comes from the Latin com-pati “suffer together”, the best translation available in Latin for the Greek σύν-πάθος “merged pathos” or “feel together”. I discern my own compassion by asking myself if I am cheered by the happiness and saddened by the sorrow of another, independent of estimation of the appropriateness of their emotions.
It is easy to assume that compassion presupposed love, since I appear to be willing to sacrifice for those I feel compassionate toward in return for the reciprocal happiness I gain from aiding them. There are people I love beyond that level. There are also “people” for whom I feel compassion but who excite neither love nor respect, but all of the examples I can think of are fictional character. What it is about compassion that allows it to extend to people I know do not exist?