Our word compassion focuses on feeling: to enter into and
feel the suffering (if it is a negative situation) or the joy, happiness,
delight of another. The sense of passion stresses the overwhelming
emotional character of the experience because we see we are in
intimate union together.
The Hebrew word rakham that we translate as compassion
calls upon us to recognize the very basis of the interpersonal
union that makes the shared experience possible, even
inevitable. Rakham comes from the same root as the word
for womb: rekhem. But this is not to suggest that all of us,
men and well as women, are “mothers” and thus able to feel
for others as mothers do for their children. Rakhem, rather,
points the way back to the very formative experience
(now “forgotten”) universal to us all: in the fusion of the
two sets of genes, in the nine months growth and shaping,
in the drawing of the materials of life into our living bodies —
all of this taking place within and from another human being.
We will never again experience such a near-absolute
intimacy of union with another human being because we will
never again be within and totally dependent on that other.
And yet at the same time it is paradoxically the experience
of the forming of our independent selfhood—within this other
but not just part of her, and not at all simply a duplicate
of her. Within her and drawing from her we become more and
more our very different selves.
We are born and no longer within her, but that unitive
experience can never be really forgotten — it is literally built
into us, into our bodies! From the beginning we know what
it is to be intimately one-with-another — and so we can
come together with others, share life, be compassionate,
love. This power is ours — there even when we refuse to
us it — because that is how we came to exist. This is
the creative fact of life regardless of how destructive the initial
joining of the parents might have been, or how destructive
the circumstances after might prove to be. We have the
power of union, of love.