Compassion is an emotion—a response to the suffering of others and an accompanying desire to eliminate or minimize such suffering, or, at least, to make it more bearable. Compassion is hard, but being an emotion, it is often perceived as a weakness. Compassion is not a weakness. Compassion is for the strong and for those who would be strong. It includes caring about the fates and circumstances of people wholly unrelated to you. Shared humanity may be the only connection there actually is. Or even harder, compassion is caring for people, who give you little or nothing in return. People who have, and sometimes often, attacked your very humanity with words, emotions, or actions.
Caring for our family and our friends is not always easy—sometimes they make it damn difficult—but concern in these relationships is automatic. It takes some effort to disrupt the mutual concern in these cases. Concern for those in your wider “tribe” is harder, but still generally automatic.
Compassion is more than simply caring. And it is involved in relationships that do not automatically elicit our concern. Precisely for this reason compassion is connected to the saintly. Compassion often seems too difficult for us ordinary folks. This might seem contradictory to my declaration that compassion is thought of as a sappy, emotional weakness. But it’s not. Saints—all saints, not just the Catholic ones—exist in a superhuman realm in our imagination. Saints devote their lives to activities unachievable by plain old people. Saints are “unreal.” They may get away with compassion, but they don’t live in the real world. At least that’s a common undertone when compassion comes up.
Thích Nhất Hạnh said, “Compassion is a verb.” Of course it is. Compassion is not a synonym for sympathy. Compassion involves doing. Compassionate actions are often things like organizing a soup kitchen, helping refugees set up a new home, volunteering to work a domestic abuse hotline, personally caring for family members who are difficult and ungrateful.
But there is another kind of act of compassion that is much harder. It is harder because it is not just seeing a problem and finding and implementing a solution. I speak of acting to understand—truly understand—those different from ourselves. Really connecting.
Compassion is easier for some than for others. Personally, I find many views of right-wing politicians, conservative Christians, and firebrand atheists quite difficult to understand. Trying to be compassionate to their struggles and their journeys that have brought them to those beliefs does not come naturally for me. But I try. (Don’t scoff. I do.) I try because their human experiences are as valid as my own. Connecting with the experiences of others humanizes them. Humanizing people makes peace possible.
“But what if,” you ask, “the other person doesn’t go along?” Good point. In that case it becomes even more important to stay committed to your life-long journey of compassion. Not because it will necessarily have any effect on them—though it might—but because it will make being compassionate easier the next time compassion is called for.
I do try to approach all interactions—in person or not—with compassion. The fact is, however, I often fail. Often. And that is part of the point: I’m not a saint. I never will be. But that is no reason not to practice compassion. Like anything, practice makes perfect. Imagine if we all made a commitment to actively practice compassion. What if compassion became second nature? Human nature.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.