When we talk of compassion, suffering is never very far away, as the origin of the word attests: the Latin compassio means “suffering with”. During this time of great suffering, we have also seen much compassion, both from individuals and communities. In words as in life, darkness and light can and do coexist. Compassion is the only thing that will matter to all of us, in the end.
The neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was only 36 when he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, as he relates in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi explains why he gave up English literature to train in medicine, and charts the philosophical journey he took to embody the meaning and importance of compassion: “As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.” The book was published after his death, but Kalanithi lives on with his beautiful words.
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life follows four men over three decades as they navigate New York. When I added this novel to the reading list for a creative writing MA a few years ago, it was a controversial and divisive choice. Half the students found Yanagihara’s descriptions of violence, sexual abuse and suffering made it too traumatic to read. But the story’s most powerful moments are not about abuse, they’re about the power of compassion and friendship. This compassion is not an attempt to fix what is beyond repair – in this case the central character, Jude – or even understanding what he has been through, because we can’t; nobody can. But his friends’ acknowledgement of how much he suffers, their sitting alongside him, reminds Jude that even when he feels most alone, he is not. As with all the best fiction, I was left changed after reading it.
Wonder by RJ Palacio tells the story of 10-year-old Auggie, who has craniofacial abnormalities. After years of home schooling, he decides he wants to go to “real” school. It is a story of triumph, hope and courage – all made possible through compassion. And it is Auggie – despite being horribly bullied – who is the most compassionate of all. It’s misleading to label this a young adult novel: this is fiction for all of us.
Wonder is a story of triumph, hope and courage – all made possible through compassion
The most original, heart-stopping debut novel I’ve read for years is Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me. It explores multiple themes: family, identity, sexuality, addiction, violence and religion. As he grows into adolescence the narrator, K, finds friends – and love – yet he begins breaking into pieces, the narrative fracturing along with his psyche. The novel dances somewhere between poetry and prose as it charts his journey from birth to adulthood, scattering fragments of memory. The absence of belonging in K’s life has a devastating impact on his sense of self. He is so deserving of compassion. We all are.
Elif Shafak’s slim polemic How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a kind of manifesto for compassion. In a world of fake news, Twitter outrage and echo chambers, the novelist examines the polarisation of modern and political debate, and searches for truth and commonality. We are almost overwhelmed by the pandemic, impending economic collapse and climate change, but Shafak argues for conscious optimism. This pamphlet shows the power of stories to unite us, offering hope, faith in humanity and a glimpse of a more compassionate future.
• The Courage to Care by Christie Watson is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.