It seems to me that we hear the word, “compassion” quite often. What does it mean exactly? And how does it work? Here’s what some say:
Compassion is a virtue — one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism — foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.
Sounds pretty important doesn’t it? In our culture, it sometimes takes on religious overtones, at least when I hear the word uttered. Feeling sorry for others is one way to go, I guess, but may also carry patronizing overtones of moral superiority. Maybe the opposite of compassion is to ignore people’s suffering, perhaps because you expect everyone to take care of themselves (Republicans) or because we feel that we have too much suffering of our own already and can’t take on any more. This last thought is enticing, especially since we are living in an economic and psychologically discouraging time. How can we feel sorry for others when we feel inundated with worry and frustration ourselves?
So, let’s take a deep breath. Where are we going anyhow? Perhaps nowhere. Or not very far. Maybe we’ve done what we can in our lives and look around to see how we want to live now. We’ve been working on getting rid of regrets because they’re an anomalous way of feeling sorry for ourselves with imaginings of what might have been–the outcome of which can only be virtual fantasy. Maybe we are feeling overburdened by the problems of others which is outside of our control, but impactive nevertheless.
To have compassion, I think, requires one to be present to someone else’s suffering. Not to try to swipe it aside like windshield wipers flailing away in a rainstorm. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to alleviate it (as in altruism) because just to be present and to accept it is a big deal, it seems to me. So, not cutting and wanting to run and hide in the face of someone’s problems can be an act of compassion, perhaps. Being understanding without feeling like you have to give advice or to “fix it” is a giant step also. I have a lot of trouble not doing this all the time because my project management career in biotech was to catch and fix problems no matter who they belonged to.
On the other side of the coin, being overly cheerful in an effort to make people feel better, I think, is dishonest and a disservice to everyone. Being real and present while maintaining respect toward the other person seems to be as compassionate a way to behave as possible towards someone who is suffering or is unhappy.
While reflecting about compassion, I remembered that family behaviors I observed as a child were laced with anger, resentment and contempt. It’s helpful to notice this history, so that I can avoid falling into those patterns, just because that’s all I knew as normalcy.
If we decide we can be compassionate as described here — not running away, not trying to fix it, showing respect and being present, it might allow us to be born again. At the very least, it might help.