What Encompasses Compassion?

-Written by Dr. Geeta Sundar

I stand sipping a large cardamom tea. The last few days have been horrible. My stomach has been in the depths of hell, with a constant agony brandishing my mucosa, causing an acid reflux like no other and the only respite is tea over coffee, or lemon sherbet.

I notice a man approaching the café counter. The café countertop is hardly a cardboard box broad. There is a large note in his hand. He looks tired, carrying a ton of bags in his hands.

He asks for a large water bottle. Cold, he specifies. The weather has been throwing sun storms on us like the recent Artic phenomenon in the news and the sweltering climate is having everyone in the worst dehydration.

The café sales lady replies that their fridge is broken, and she only has normal room temperature water. He frowns at it, awaits a possible change in her response, maybe expecting her to change her answer based on his facial expressions and when that fails, he nods more to himself than her, and asks for whatever she can offer.

She places the water bottle on the countertop, as he furnishes the large note, only to refuse the note. She mentions the day has just started and she has no change to offer for the buy. He is exasperated now, after hearing her answer. Anger, frustration, and a sense of longing fills his face. So thirsty, he croons, begging her to give him water, any water, just so he can satisfy his thirst.

But, the business woman stands straight and refuses his request. No change, she reiterates, and pulls the water bottle back from the counter.

I watch as his face crumples, the meager flush note in his hand almost dwindling away in its value, as he walks backwards, the thirst, the need so clearly evident on his face.

I often say this, that I am not a very sympathetic person, and its true. I have my best days with the sympathy gene and some days, I think my body forgets to produce it, due to all the multifactorial influences of the surgical and neurosurgical wards. On this instant, for example, my gene was off, and I was just watching the man, trying to see what would happen next – would the sales lady intervene, would someone else step forward….?

He sat down on one of the chairs near the café. The sales lady didn’t bat an eyelid and went back to calculating her sales for the day. And I stood there, shamelessly, half wishing to help, but half wishing to test the waters.

A lady walked up to the man and handed him a smaller note for the water bottle. They had a small chat on the man’s relative who is admitted in the medicine ward, and she asked him about the patient’s health as they continued their animated conversation.

Feeling a weird privy to their talk, I moved away, now sipping on my cold tea. The cold tea was a good lesson. A fix to my indifferent nature. A response to my unwavering aloof self.

Its not that I didn’t want to help. I did. But, some part of me has become so accustomed to seeing the deeper part of the iceberg, and the umpteen scores of the hidden grief in situations, that something probably this superficial, albeit not superficial for a thirsty man, but a quest like water for a thirsty man, renders an insipid response from me, in terms of compassion.

Maybe, its maturity. Maybe, its more to do with having seen and been part of so much morbidity that I’m numb in certain aspects of the human nature. I wish to help; that concerned neural network, thank god, is intact, and I’m not completely a rolling ball collecting moss, but the connections firing from that main source lose their tract as they fumble into my cortex that has witnessed scores of dying breeds.

My compassion has an expiry date. It also has a value. And a threshold. And it comes and goes based on the situation. It’s not one shoe fits all. I would love to refute it, but sometimes, a crying child in the ward, doesn’t elicit a response from me, other than the fact that its my patient and I need to see the reason for the cry – pain, fever, hunger etc. There is no emotional link in that feeling I harness. Or an empathy that a small child is crying, or in pain.

Maybe its years of hardened, schooled training, or maybe its just the way I have been taught to express minimal emotion in the face of eminent sentiments, or maybe it’s the surgeon in me. Or maybe its just better to shun away all emotion and focus on the work at hand, become the workhouse and just stay silent. Maybe its more than just one or two things, maybe it is also easier to stay unempathetic because it hurts less and I am less of a victim than I can call myself to be, especially when the patient’s health takes a bad turn, and I blame the doer, i.e, me.

Despite all the above, and my sympathy gene malfunctions, I yearn and search to belong to the magical caregivers who harness and provide compassion. For, as I understand it, there is a secret element to compassion, one that is yet to be known and one that I wish I could hold onto and never let go. Compassion is more than just concern or pity for suffering or misfortune, its more than just being felt compelled to reduce one’s suffering…because all that I do as a part of my routine day to day work and life. I feel there is an element of reflection of one’s self in the act of compassion; it is a method to alleviate another’s downtrodden situation; and it is an unhinged service to establish humanity that is often lost in translation. And last but not the least, there is an element of magic in the offering, and only those who believe in it can find it and pass it on.

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