Einstein on Widening Our Circles of Compassion
By Maria Popova
“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sang as she put one of her father’s poems to music, “for you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” But without the recognition that those wars are shared wars — that our suffering is always a part of the suffering, common to the human experience — compassion becomes an intellectual abstraction. Only through such recognition can we come to grasp what Martin Luther King so poetically termed our “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
That’s what Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) explored in a beautiful letter of consolation to a grieving father named Robert S. Marcus, political director of the World Jewish Congress, whose young son had just died of polio. The letter was later included in The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (public library) — the remarkable encounter between molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist-raised astrophysicist Trinh Thuan.
Long before Carl Sagan wrote of compassion as our only mechanism for moving beyond “us vs. them,” Einstein writes in February of 1950, in a possibly imperfect translation:
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
To be sure, Einstein was a master-consoler in the face of loss and grief, and it was often in moments like this that he articulated his most spiritually oriented ideas — take, for instance, his exquisite letter of consolation to the Queen of Belgium about grief, eternity, and the privilege of old age. This raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question: Did Einstein, when confronted with mortality, deliberately dial up the spiritual dimension, or is a confrontation with mortality where our most existential and transcendent ideas organically emerge? It’s an interesting question, but ultimately a moot one — neither the occasion nor the direction of causality matters in the end, for what greater feat than wresting from the terror of our finitude a more expansive, perhaps even infinite, circle of compassion?
The Quantum and the Lotus, which also gave us physicist David Bohm on how we shape what we call reality, is a mind- and spirit-enlarging read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Einstein on wonderment and the nature of the human mind, his message to posterity, and his advice to Marie Curie on how to handle haters, then revisit Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule.
Published November 28, 2016