Thoughts on Compassion from a Mere Human – Redux

1000 Voices Speak for Compassion is celebrating it’s first birthday! Our very first link-up and social networking blitz was held on February 20, 2015. So the open-ended theme for this month’s post is to celebrate a year of compassion.

“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer

So many possibilities. Too many. And in a year that has seen an escalation in terrorism – Boko Haram, ISIS – and a disturbing rise in Nationalism across Europe and the United States, I could feel discouraged. Perhaps I should. But I don’t. Reactionary responses to external threats – real or imagined – are part and parcel of what it means to be human. But I still think that, although we will never evolve to be a truly peaceful, enlightened species, the vast majority of us are able to tap into our better natures if we try. And every time we do, our actions empower other to do the same. Maybe we can’t get it right all of the time – because we aren’t perfect, and the world isn’t perfect – but some of the time is better than none of the time. And giving up is not an option if we want our species to survive, and more importantly, to flourish.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
― Robert F. Kennedy

And so, in that vein, I went back and re-read my first #1000Speak post, and somewhat lacking in originality, decided to use it, with minimal changes, as my own way of reflecting on #1000Speak, and of celebrating the past 12 months of focused posts.

Back in 2015, 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. But when I finally sat down to write, I found that most of my initial ideas were more generic, and derivative, than they should have been, so I decided to wax philosophically about compassion, empathy, the state of the world, and me.  And I added the full Charter For Compassion (along with a link to the website) because I felt it was important to share. And I’m very happy to say that we’re now a part of the Charter for Compassion community – check out our page here.

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 often said that I’m 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.
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

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.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― Albert Einstein

 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. Over the past 12 months, as I’ve delved into each of the compassion-oriented themes, both as a reader and a writer, I’ve seen the possibilities, and the roadblocks, from differing viewpoints, and I’ve reconnected with a somewhat more meditative self that I’d left behind years ago. Perhaps we will never achieve global world peace, but we each have the capacity to make our own small piece of the universe a better, more compassionate, place.
“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
 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 affirming and sharing the Charter.

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.


13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Compassion from a Mere Human – Redux”

  1. Thanks, Kerri. It can be difficult sometimes to feel like we’re doing enough. But I try to remind myself that I can only do what I can do when I can. And sometimes other aspects of my life require more attention & energy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d forgotten about that charter. Thanks for the reminder.
    I am a pretty empathetic person, as I’ve been through some things that have permitted me to easily want to put myself in someone’s shoes because I’ve needed that from them first. I didn’t think as much about compassion as an entity until February 2015 and now I am glad I can think closely about it every month at least. I never know if I am doing enough, but I know my intentions are there and pure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oooh – I love the quote from Hair – I’ve seen it but that never stood out. Such a great way to bring compassion back home.

    So many lovely thoughts here – thank you for putting them all together so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! thanks so much for putting all of this together. There’s so much to think about. I am quite an empath but I also need to become more of a woman of action in virtually all areas of my life. INcluding making Honey Joys with my daughter this afternoon. It’s a hot day and you make them in a saucepan over the stove, which really doesn’t appeal. I was hoping my cup of tea would give me superpowers. Right now, I’d even settle for willpower.
    xx Rowena


  5. Thanks, Lizzi – I think that we all tend to think that we don’t do enough. But part of compassion – the necessary first part – is recognizing that we have limits. And that that’s okay. We do what we can, when we can, and try not to feel guilty when we can’t do more (or anything at all, sometimes). I sincerely hope that 1000Speak continues to grow & thrive. The world needs more of us.


  6. These are beautiful, beautiful thoughts, and I think it sounds as though you’re doing HUGE amounts, locally and globally, to send out those changing ripples across your portion of the world. It makes me think how little I’m doing, yet I think (with either laziness or self-compassion, not sure which) I’m doing most of the things I *could* be doing at this stage, and with how things are at the moment.

    I suppose we can all always do more.

    Thanks for being such a stalwart part of 1000Speak, and for championing it so wonderfully. It’s a fabulous community to belong to, and I hope it continues for many years to come 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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