The Power of Language-A Study of the Words Compassion and Solicitude

Want a fun first date tip? Try asking a person what their favorite words are. While you may come up with some pretty wild or silly answers, our choice of language reveals a great deal about who we are and what we think about the world around us. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a conversation about language with someone that I admire very much, and it was an eye-opening experience.

Our discussion revolved around three words: compassion, solicitude, and pity. While the two of us both agreed that pity was an ugly word, we differed in opinion when it came to the former two. I was fond of the word compassion, but he pointed out that part of its definition was “to pity” and preferred to use the term solicitude instead. This seemed bizarre to me, as I associated solicitude with solicitors and used-car salesmen. We agreed to disagree, but the conversation struck a chord in me. I wanted to understand why I had such a fondness for the word compassion despite the fact that it contained the word pity in its definition. Let’s be real: no one likes to be pitied. When we were kids, pity got us some pretty sweet band-aids at the doctor’s office, but as a whole, pity never really got us anywhere. Over time, I think most of us learn that if we acquire something via pity, it’s not really something worth having, and tends to be thrown out later with our old bandages. So, why my fondness for compassion, a word which the Merriam Webster tells me is synonymous with pity?

The answer lies within the root of the word compassion itself: compati, which means to suffer with. From this origin, we see a connection with others, as is implied by the preposition with.  It requires a certain understanding of the other and an authentic meeting. However, a truly compassionate person does not suffer with the other because he can fully understand the suffering, or even fully understand the other, but because he knows that suffering is powerful; it transforms us. He understands that suffering is the human gateway to mercy and an invitation to a fuller dimension of love. Rather than attempt to destroy or negate suffering, compassion validates the human person by accepting and embracing the whole of the individual, including its loneliness and its yearning. It does not look at a person and see a less valuable individual because of their circumstances, but rather, it sees a human being with an immeasurable value and potential to love and fullness. In this sense, compassion stands in sharp contrast to pity. Pity negates suffering and wishes to subdue it, but in doing so, it negates the one who suffers. In my view, no two words could be more dissimilar. Sorry, Merriam Webster.

How does compassion do this? How does the compassionate person know that suffering does not lessen the value of a person? The only way someone can have this kind of compassion, I believe, is by having experienced compassion. For a Catholic, this compassion is outpoured constantly in the form of mercy. We know that we are loved and transformed daily by a God who is fully human, who truly suffered, and who used that suffering to transform the whole world. Through the people around us and through the sacraments, we have experienced this mercy at our worst moments, and through it, we have experienced the mercy of God. Growing up Catholic, one grows up not so much on fairy tales, but on the stories of the lives of the saints and beatified - stories of real people who knew real suffering, and who constantly extended their love to others despite it. Images of St. John Paul the Second and Blessed Mother Theresa readily come to mind. We are raised on the word compassion. But, what about solicitude?

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
— St. Augustine, The Confessions

Let’s go back now, for a moment, to my conversation with my friend. He was, and still is, fond of the term solicitude. So, wanting to understand him better, I did some research into this word as well. The root here is sollicitus, which means to be anxious, worried, concerned, and restless. At first glance, the origins of this word did not increase my liking of it. However, I dug a little deeper into the origin of sollicitus itself and discovered that it is comprised of two words: sollus (whole, full) and cieō (to move, to stir, to call). When you break it down this way, sollicitus literally means to be stirred to fullness, to be called to wholeness. What better word is there to describe the human condition? St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly expressing this sentiment when he wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” From the day of our birth, we yearn restlessly for fullness.

While the Catholic is practically raised on compassion, solicitude is a term that we do not find in our vocabulary as readily. I certainly think, however, based on the meanings hidden within this word, that we should. Together, words like compassion and solicitude can both bring us to a fuller understanding of ourselves and a fuller understanding of God. Words, bursting with life within them, can transform us. After all, we believe that, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” as we pray in the Angelus.

Language is incredibly powerful, whether we are consciously aware of its power or not. Some words contain breadth and depth that go beyond our daily speech and straight into the yearnings of our hearts. I am no linguist, but through intuition and a basic understanding of etymology, it is clear to me that compassion and solicitude both fall into this supreme category. Each reveals the yearning of the human heart for connection, fullness, and relationship with the other and with God. Each has roots that reach through generations, languages, and cultures straight into the heart of life. How wonderful it is to be able to speak to one another with these words.