Thoughts on Compassion from a Mere Human

When I set out to write this piece, I wasn’t too sure where I wanted to go with it, although I had a couple of ideas. Now that I’m sitting down to write, I find that most of my initial ideas were more generic, and derivative, than they should have been, so I’ve decided to wax philosophically about compassion, empathy, the state of the world, and me. Perhaps with a few other things thrown in, including the full Charter For Compassion (along with a link to the website).

The words compassion and empathy are frequently used interchangeably, but of course, they aren’t the same.

According to Merriam-Webster

the definition of compassion is sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

and the definition of empathy is 1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it 2:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also  :  the capacity for this

So, then, from a dictionary perspective, empathy is really more of a receptive state, while compassion comes with an urge to act. But how, and when, we act, is what may be the crux of problem for us, as humans.

“Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?/How about a needing friend?”

 “Easy To Be Hard” from the musical “Hair” – Gerome Ragni, James Rado, Galt MacDermot, 1967.

Those words, taken a bit out of context, and probably best known from the Three Dog Night cover of the song, have always resonated with me. I’ve always said that I am short on empathy and long on compassion. My husband has said that I care about humanity as a whole, but have little patience for individual people. He’s not far wrong.

But, in all honesty, who among us can say that we have never been guilty of neglecting friends, and family, or pushing an issue close to home off to the side, while continuing to give – time, energy, money – to causes that are further removed? It’s not that we don’t care, because we do. It’s that we often don’t see what’s right in front of us. Or that we have exhausted our reserve of patience with those closest to us. Or we know we’re fortunate, and we sometimes don’t clearly see that, although not rising to the level of a Charlie Hebdo massacre – which we can grieve about but not fix – our neighbor who is dealing with an illness, or the loss of a child, is suffering misfortune and can also use our compassion and support – even if we don’t know them well.

I, like many of us, give money for a variety of causes, and write letters, make phone calls, write blog posts. Some of us help out at food banks or rummage sales. But like many of us, I find it hard to find the time, between work and home, to actively help others more directly, in any way more useful than lending an ear. To be fair to myself, I nearly always have at least one non-family member living with us – many years of wonderful teenage foreign exchange students (because if it it were my child spending a year abroad, I’d like to know they were safe and in a positive environment), friends, of ours and of our kids, who need a place to stay between semesters, between jobs, between homes. For an introvert, this alone is exhausting. But I do grapple with the guilt of thinking that I could, maybe, be doing more for some people that don’t live with me, but aren’t far enough removed for a check. Perhaps the ultimate example of ‘think globally, act locally’. It’s a difficult balance – one that I’m sure I’m not alone in muddling through.

Not everyone is an empath, and it is certainly easier to sympathize than to empathize – I don’t think empathy can be taught. Unless you are an empath (surely a rare, and difficult, gift), you may only be capable of empathizing if you’ve had similar experiences to those of others. But everyone, barring those suffering certain psychiatric disorders, is capable of compassion. And this, I believe, can, and should be taught. It is almost impossible to be ethical, or moral, without compassion. And not just to our fellow humans. Albert Schweitzer and St. Francis of Assisi both noted that compassion toward all creatures is necessary, and that mistreatment of animals is an indicator of the likelihood of mistreatment of other humans.

We can be incredibly selfish, and self-serving, creatures, but I think that we have within ourselves an awesome capacity for kindness, and the will to do good. But sometimes we need that push to motivate ourselves to do something positive – for ourselves as much as for others. Projects like 1000 Speak can help to motivate us (& on a personal level, it did me), by bringing one topic, such as compassion, into focus. In writing about compassion in the broader sense, we re-examine our own views and behaviors. By getting involved in thinking about compassion, and what it means to us, we compel ourselves to act.

And, that also brings me around to the Charter for Compassion, and its reminder to us all that compassion is a necessity. I encourage everyone to read it, sign it, and stay involved.

For additional information & resources, please check out the Charter for Compassion website, and consider signing on.

The full Charter For Compassion is reprinted below:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. 

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

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21 thoughts on “Thoughts on Compassion from a Mere Human”

  1. Thank you for the insightful comment – I think the difference between the two is very important to understand because I think that confusing the two makes it harder to be compassionate. But the important thing is that people try to be kind, respectful, and supportive of others. That alone would make things so much better.

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  2. You’ve done us all a great service by distinguishing between “empathy” and “compassion”, as people often think they’re the same. I pray every day the more people are guided to follow the golden rule, pertaining to animals as well as humans. Compassion in action is the guiding force behind any truly civilized and humane society. Bless you for being a compassionate person, and thanks for promoting the Charter for Compassion website!

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  3. I agree wholeheartedly – quite often it is not the obvious choice that is the most humane or morally correct. Especially when it comes to those living on the streets, our humanity may have us err on simple handout, but that is often not the best way to show support.
    The story you recounted, of compassion to you, but none demonstrated for the homeless, does exemplify the split we all have in our views. The kind gentleman assisting you, probably saw you as one of his own, but with a handicap. And therefore not only in need, but worthy of his time and attention. He saw the homeless man as someone so unlike him, that he barely registered that there might have been a worthwhile need there as well.
    This is troubling, but all too human, but I fear that western society has drifted back to a time when the poor were somewhat demonized – the differences are not only exaggerated, but the poor are blamed for their own plight. If only they would clean themselves up and get jobs, they would be fine. I find this attitude has become widespread enough, at least in the US, that it may take decades to undo once the tide finally turns.
    Thanks, you very much for your thoughtful – and thought provoking reply.

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  4. Thank you for this thought provoking post.
    I am blind and recollect a gentleman assisting me to find my way around a public toilet in London’s Victoria station. Quite obviously an act of compassion on his part. However he asked a homeless man sitting on the steps giving access to the facilities to move in an extremely rude manner. So while this man had compassion for me he showed none for the homeless gentleman. I guess my point is that people are complex creatures, capable of being compassionate and downright nasty, on occasions almost simultaneously. This incident being a classic case in point.
    It isn’t always straightforward to know what the compassionate response is. For example there is a homeless man who regularly asks for money outside my local supermarket. I have, on occasions donated to him. I have, however heard from a number of sources that he uses the money received to pay for alcohol rather than food. Consequently the question arises “is it moral to give money to a person in the knowledge they may use it to harm themselves?” The answer is “no” and the ideal solution is to give regularly to a charity for the homeless rather than to individuals. However when one sees a homeless person, on a freezing cold evening, sitting outside a supermarket the heart softens and money is given, at least it is in my case.
    Compassion is, in short not always a straightforward matter.

    Kevin

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  5. thanks, Teresa – it’s funny, but I sometimes wonder if immediate family is all that easy – that’s where the patience problem can come in. But for all of my causes, and a I have a few, I do find that I miss the boat a lot with neighbors & acquaintances – particularly those needed drives to chemo & doctor’s appts. I work a day job, so I have a legitimate excuse, but I sometimes wish I could do more than I do. Oh well..

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  6. Yes – Compassion takes work – life is full of too many distractions. And yes, I agree, that it is way to easy to accept the assumption that someone else will take care of it
    & Thanks for reading!

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  7. Compassion is a great gift. It is sometimes difficult to give selflessly. Most do it without thinking where family is concerned. It is more difficult as the relationships become more distant. You make a great case for the necessity of humanity stretching their reach to those in need both close to home and farther. It is something to aspire to.

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  8. Excellent post. Life seems designed to keep us busy and to divert our attention away from things that we are all taught to care about. The idea that someone else will always be there to do it is very seductive. Compassion requires attention, and it requires use in order for us to not lose touch with it.

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