What is compassion?

com • pas • sion (n)— a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

There’s some confusion about just what compassion is. I was recently at a gathering where compassionate action was being discussed with intensity and seriousness. I noticed that some of the ideas for compassionate action included “continuing the conversation,” “being sure to make eye contact with others,” “creating green spaces,” “carpooling,” “being courteous,” “getting involved in the political process,” and other recommendations that were certainly valuable but that were not examples of compassion in action.

Being nice, a good citizen, thoughtful, friendly, honest, authentic, environmentally sensitive, good parents, et al. are important. They aren’t acts of compassion. To be compassionate is to enter into the world of one who is suffering: to intimately know the pain of deprivation, loss, despair, doubt, humiliation, injustice, violence, the looming possibility of death, and the landscape of unbearable sorrow. Compassion means feeling someone’s pain and committing fully to doing something about it.

What it looks like

Compassion can take many forms. For example:

  • An older woman, using a walker, slowly crosses a street. Realizing the light is changing, she attempts to move faster. She stumbles and falls as the light changes and traffic begins to move toward her. A man guns the throttle of his pickup, throwing his vehicle in front of her, making a protective wall between her and the oncoming traffic. He jumps out of the pickup to make sure she is safe and that she gets any medical attention she needs.
  • A child preparing to celebrate her 10th birthday decides she wants to have a party at the local homeless shelter and to have those attending her party prepare and serve dinner to 100 homeless people at the shelter. She asks for a cake big enough so that everyone at the shelter can have birthday desert. For gifts, she asks for money to go into the specially decorated envelope she created, so that she can present the funds to the director of the shelter.
  • Because of the economic downturn, two employees from a company’s production department are notified that they will be laid off. Five of their co-workers approach management to see if they can take a cut in pay so that the laid off employees can stay. Other employees in the department learn of the offer and ask to have their pay cut as well in order to keep the employees. The manager agrees to the arrangement, requests and receives a cut in his own pay, and the department moves ahead with no layoffs.

The actions of people in these examples grew out of a personal, profound, and deeply emotional connection to those who were suffering. In some measure, they knew (sometimes instantaneously) what was going on for those needing help. And they acted — and each act exacted a price (endangering a vehicle, giving up a conventional birthday party, taking a cut in wages).

Is compassion enabling?

Compassion sometimes becomes confused with pity, benevolence, and sympathy. It is none of these. Compassion is not enabling, rather it acknowledges the pain of ownership and insists on acknowledging the truth. Compassion doesn’t indulge or tolerate evil deeds, rather it calls us to understand them and to pursue remedies which bring the greatest healing with the least harm. Compassion is not acceptance of evil, rather it seeks to know the truth of evil. It embodies understanding, wisdom and justice. Compassion is not absolution, rather it acknowledges the pain of knowing our responsibility to stand in the light of the truth and to do what we can to set things right. The exercise of true compassion (not the compassion of convenience or fashion) requires fortitude and courage. And, in my experience, compassion is always deserved.

— Ari Cowan

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