The Virtue of Compassion

Mayflower Hotel, Akron, Ohio

The word compassion doesn’t appear anywhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Nor will we find it in the 12&12. It’s not even listed in the index of As Bill Sees It. Yet, the concept is at the very heart of the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

To see this we may start by recalling the literal meaning of the term. This is “to suffer with” (Latin com, with, + passio, suffer). The term references a character trait or virtue, and also an emotion. As an emotion, to feel compassion is to suffer with those who suffer. Its three distinguishing marks are to see the suffering of another, to share in that suffering, and to wish to relieve it. As a virtue, compassion is a natural disposition to do these things—and thus to feel the emotion—whenever and wherever suffering is present.

Compassion is central to our program of recovery because that program is based on a view of the alcoholic as someone who is in fact suffering: suffering from a disease, and from the consequences of that disease. We are afflicted with a physical, mental, and spiritual illness. Moreover, a defining characteristic of that illness is that it causes us to act in compulsively self-destructive ways which inevitably bring about further anguish and pain. When alcoholism is thus seen as an illness (rather than, say, a sin or moral weakness), the alcoholic becomes a natural object of compassion (instead of, say, condemnation or punishment).

Compassion is central to our fellowship because that fellowship is based on the view that we suffer from a common malady. We share the same sickness and the same suffering. We are fellow sufferers, and we come together for the purpose of helping each other to relieve that suffering. We do that when others share at a meeting and we identify with them. We see their pain as our own because it is our own. We too have experienced it, for we too are alcoholic. That moves us to voice our identification, acknowledge the same illness, and share the same pain. And when we do that in the context of the program’s spiritual solution, when to experience we add the strength and the hope that comes with our spiritual awakening, we begin to relieve that pain. We begin to carry the message of recovery to the suffering alcoholic.

Hence, though the term is never used in our basic texts, compassion is nevertheless an animating principle of the program and the fellowship—indeed, an essential principle, for no recovery is possible without it. The AA meeting is compassion’s training ground, sharing and identifying its distinctive practice.

The long-term goal of that practice is to grow in compassion and become compassionate people. That’s the task of character building which starts with Step 4 and by which, through repeated practice, compassion becomes a habit, i.e., a virtue. We become sensitive to all suffering; we readily see its presence, identify with it, and experience a desire to alleviate it.

AA can help us to grow in compassion because its view of the sick and suffering alcoholic transcends alcoholism and the meeting room. When we identify ourselves as and with alcoholics, we are identifying with a condition that is not limited to physical suffering. We are identifying with an illness that spreads to the whole person and manifests itself in a diseased character and diseased emotions.

We suffer from “irritability, anxiety, remorse and depression” (12&12, S5, p. 56). We suffer from “pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy, and sloth” (ibid., S4, p. 48). We suffer from selfishness and self-centeredness, from self-justification and dishonesty, from jealousy, impatience, intolerance, and a whole slew of other handicaps.

These afflictions are all parts of the disease, and we identify with those who also suffer from them. In the process, we can grow and extend our identification beyond our fellow alcoholic to our fellow human being. For what AA is suggesting is that those afflictions are part of the same spiritual disease that affects all of humanity, that suffering thus broadly conceived is characteristic of the human condition.

AA sets no limit on the suffering that qualifies for compassion because there is no such limit. As a virtue, compassion is not conditional. AA membership includes “all who suffer.” So does the circle of compassion. It includes those we don’t like, those who belong to groups we don’t favor, and those with whom we may disagree on issues of vital importance to us. It includes even those who have caused us to suffer.

Using “pity” to express what today we would be more likely to call compassion, the Big Book tells us that compassion can help us to let go of our anger and resentment toward those who have wronged us. This is because through compassion we can see those wrongs as the product of an illness from which we also suffer, and as mirrors of the wrongs we too have done. Compassion helps us to see that we need to forgive because we too need forgiveness; that we need to be patient and tolerant because we need others to be patient and tolerant with us.

That is why compassion emerges as a goal in Step 4. We need to know the exact nature of the illness we are suffering from if we are to recognize it in others, identify with them, and wish to relieve it. And we can only do that if we examine all of its symptoms—the full scope of the defects of character and emotion which that illness generates.

That will gradually humble us, widen our vision, and enlarge our heart. As it does, it will help us to practice the virtue intentionally and consistently, making it increasingly natural for us to experience the emotion and to respond compassionately to the sufferer, whoever that sufferer may be. 

[Image: Mayflower Hotel in Akron, OH, from which Bill W. made the call that led to his meeting with Dr. Bob. For a photo of the phone, please click on link.]

Big Book
"We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend." – Big Book, p. 67     

"Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers." – 12&12, T5, p. 150     

"Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of human beings." – Confucius    

"I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures." – Lao Tzu   

Thomas Jefferson
"May I never get too busy in my own affairs that I fail to respond to the needs of others with kindness and compassion." – Thomas Jefferson

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow"If we could read the secret history of our ‘enemies,’ we should find in each man and woman’s life sorrow enough to disarm all hostility." – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow   

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer." – Dietrich Bonhoeffer  

Ralph Waldo Emerson"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." – Ralph Waldo Emerson  

Henry Ward Beecher
"Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation." – Henry Ward Beecher  

L. M. Stretch
"Compassion is the sense of our own misfortunes in those of another." – L. M. Stretch   

Billy Graham
"We must never minimize the suffering of another. Scripture’s mandate to us is, “Weep with them that weep.” – Billy Graham

Norman Cousins"The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter." – Norman Cousins

Ari Cowan
"Compassion is not enabling; have compassion for the person, not the offense.” – Ari Cowan

Thomas Browne, Sr.
"By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them we relieve ourselves also." – Thomas Browne, Sr.    

Ogyen Trinley Dorje
"Compassion does not focus on the suffering that beings are undergoing, but on the beings undergoing that suffering." – Ogyen Trinley Dorje    

Henri Nouwen"Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. It challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. It requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. It means full immersion in the condition of being human." – Henri J. M. Nouwen

John Andrew Holmes
"A good exercise for the heart is to bend down and help another up." – John Andrew Holmes

Nelson Mandela"Our human compassion binds us the one to the other—not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future." – Nelson Mandela

Karen Armstrong
"If it is not tempered by compassion and empathy, reason can lead men and women into a moral void." – Karen Armstrong

Robert C. Roberts
"When I perceive someone compassionately, the weakness or suffering or dysfunction I see in him is a quality I see also in myself." – Robert C. Roberts  

Courage to Change"Alcoholism is stronger than good intentions or genuine desires. I didn’t choose this family disease; neither did the alcoholic. So I try to behave with compassion for us both.” – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change 

PTP123"And we grow in love through acts of selfless giving in service to our fellows, manifesting this love in patience, compassion, generosity, kindness, and other virtues that are the fruits of charity, the love of God in us." – PTP123

PTP4"Having become experienced practitioners of compassion, we have become compassionate people. Virtue perfects nature, as Aristotle suggests. We become better at being human." – PTP4              

Practice These: Compassion - Albert Camus
Practice These: Compassion - Huston Smith

For more PTP123 passages on compassion, see pp. 29, 52, 55, 58, 64, and 123. For PTP4, see pp. 264, 272, 436; as concern, see p. 376; as corrective of defective anger, 143, 144, 400, 403, 405, 424, 426; as emotion, 75, 404; as identifying with fellow sufferers, 73, 143, 288; as personality trait, 286, 287, 298; as temperament trait, 312, 314; as virtue, 288, 313; distinguished from pity, 401, 402; guided by practical wisdom, 288; natural capacity for, 74; vs. apathy/indifference, 102, 107. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search under suffering and its cognates. See also The Virtue of Tolerance in Practice These.

Additional Resources

  1. Compassion,” chapter in Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, by Robert C. Roberts
  2. “Compassion,” Michael W. Austin’s chapter in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett 

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