Compassion and hypocrisy

May 17, 2017

The American theologian Warren Wiersbe says: “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” His words prompted me to reflect on judgment, hypocrisy and compassion.

Recently I was invited to the opening of one of the most fascinating plays I have ever seen, Edward Albee’s millennial work The Goat – or Who is Sylvia? The Goat stars Damian Lewis as middle-aged architect Martin, whose family’s seemingly respectable life is upended when it is exposed that he has secretly embarked on a distinctly unusual love affair with a goat, named Sylvia. His wife Stevie, son Billy and best friend Ross are all devastated by the news in different ways: Stevie is jealous, Billy shocked and Ross self-righteous and judgmental. Martin tries to justify his feelings for the goat/Silvia, having (ironically) been judgmental of his son’s homosexuality.

In an interview for The Goat’s 2002 New York premiere, Albee said: “Imagine what you can’t imagine. Imagine that, all of a sudden, you found yourself in love with a Martian, in love with something you can’t conceive of. I want everybody to be able to think about what they can’t imagine and what they have buried deep as being intolerable and insufferable. I want them to just think freshly and newly about it.”

Albee provokes the audience in all manner of ways, culminating in a surprising twist when the son forcefully plants his mouth on his father’s for a passionate kiss. The father is shocked and disgusted. Watching, it suddenly became clear to me and the audience: the play is not about bestiality, homosexuality, adultery or incest. The author is challenging us to question our own moral judgment and social taboos. Rather than judge others, he suggests we turn a critical gaze on ourselves.

François de La Rochefoucauld, the great French writer of the 17th century, observed that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue”. He meant, perhaps, that we often want to appear virtuous, even when we do not succeed in doing so.

A famous fashion designer and environmental campaigner once came to my home for dinner. The porter complained that she had chained her bicycle to the railings without approval. What impressed me the most was how she seemed to be walking her talk. I admire her honesty and integrity.

Striving for integrity and avoiding hypocrisy are what I aspire to. However, I also recognise human frailty, changing values and the impertinent nature of life. Avoiding hypocrisy doesn’t mean we become victims to limiting beliefs or the polarity of right or wrong. Compassion is the key to free us from judgment and hypocrisy.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation