The start of a year is always an opportunity to look forward, to resolve to do things differently, to relate in a different way and to change direction.

It is therefore a risky time. The desire for the new can risk sweeping away the best of the old; the energy to innovate can risk draining sense from what is commonplace; the urgency for change can risk the loss of the safe and familiar. The necessity of action can risk the way we relate to others.

The first few days of 2019 have filled me personally with a growing sense of dismay and on occasion real concern about the cohesiveness of society. There seems to me to be a growing sense of dis-ease and a lack of compassion and care in politics, in many of our communities and in the wider media. This personal unease was articulated by the Queen in her Christmas Message when she said:

“Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.”

These words were immediately seized upon and considered to be a veiled reference to Brexit. Be that as it may I would suggest they have a wider resonance at the start of this year.

Compassion is central to all good and meaningful social care. Indeed compassion is one of the five principles which underpin our Health and Care Standards in Scotland. Sadly what seems to be lacking in recent days is a sense of compassion beyond the context of social care and health.

Admittedly compassion can be a bit of a nebulous word but it has some essential elements. Compassion conveys a sense of sympathy, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, and tolerance.

It is not surprising therefore that the concept of compassion is central to good care. We recognise that the best of care in care homes and of care in an individual’s own home requires staff who are empathic, sensitive and able to relate and get alongside others – even when personal feelings may make that relationship challenging. Care involves developing the art of being professionally compassionate.

The scenes of angry crowds shouting down politicians outside Westminster in recent days, the vitriol and violence expressed on social media and the horror of several murders in open and public spaces in the last two weeks seem to paint a picture of a society which has lost the capacity to be compassionate.

Now I immediately accept that this analysis on its own is too simplistic not least because the tens of thousands of staff in care homes, homecare and in doing jobs in the NHS and elsewhere are daily illustrations of compassion in action. But…

I suspect we need to recognise that civil society and cohesive communities do not just happen but that they need to be striven for and built. I suspect that the ability to dialogue with difference and to discover reconciliation and compromise is something that has to be developed and worked at. I suspect that the resolution of the massive political and economic challenges we face in the next weeks and months can only be achieved by shared collective resolve and mutual respect.

Compassion needs to become the energy not just of professional carers but all who would seek to lead us politically and economically. If we are to move forward on so many issues whether Brexit or a Scottish Budget, whether reform of social care or education, then I suspect we need to rediscover the spirit and power of compassion in civic and political discourse.

I believe it is perfectly possible to hold strongly held political and philosophical beliefs without that requiring the disminishing and devaluing of the views and values of others. I believe that it is absolutely right that anger and passion can be utilised in a way which is righteous and convincing. However when anger becomes dismissive and denigrating of the other then it is destructive and dangerous.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote ‘Compassion is the basis of morality.’ It is such a political morality we need to urgently discover.

The year that lies in front of us will bring undoubted challenge and in the world of social care as elsewhere the necessity to make hard and sometimes painful decisions – I very much hope that it will also bring a discovery of the power of compassion.

Dr D Macaskill
@DrDMacaskill