I’m not convinced that compassion is as abundant as kindness or love. At least, compassion isn’t as easily recognizable as kindness and love. We can name thousands of different acts of kindness, but compassion seems to be more like the quiet introvert of characteristics. How exactly is compassion expressed?
Compassion is expressed through listening mostly. I consider compassion to be a deep sense of caring, but apparently it’s more than that. Compassion floats around with sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is understanding someone’s feelings, empathy is feeling another’s feelings, and compassion is the desire to relieve another of their suffering/feelings. Like kindness, it’s more of an act, but it’s also not a verb.
To me, compassion seems selective. I know people who have little compassion for anyone else except animals or children. Other people only have a special bond with the elderly. There’s a pattern of feeling greater compassion for those who are more vulnerable. Can this expand so compassion reaches more living things?
While working in the public school system, I noticed when compassion emerges in children. Part of the social-emotional learning curriculum involves asking children to recognize emotions in others, and to make connections between a time they felt a certain way (left out, frustrated, excited, nervous, etc.) and when a peer is expressing the same feeling. It helps them to understand consequences of their actions, that it’s okay for everyone to feel feelings, and that some people express them differently.
In psychology we’re told a behavior is a result of a feeling or experience. The child who destroys a classroom might need some extra attention they might not be getting at home, or they need extra communication before a lesson transition (“After calendar we go to the math center” or “In one more minute we move to the tables for writing”). We understand that bullies have their own insecurities. Because we learn of the potential reasoning behind these behaviors, there is often a greater sense of sympathy/empathy/compassion. With all of this, I do wonder, can compassion be learned? Can compassion really be successfully taught to children or adults?
In an effort to answer these questions I think of nature/nurture. Compassion can be both innate and a product of environment. Particular cultures and communities cultivate greater compassion for one another. The US is more of an individualistic culture, or emphasizes individuality, independence, and the “every man for himself” mentality. Because the US as a culture is not as community-centered as others, compassion may be less apparent. This doesn’t mean that everybody in the US only cares about themselves and their own families, but certain perspectives are embedded in cultural values. Where has your compassion come from?
This raises another question. Have you noticed that when you’re asked to feel compassion that it often comes with guilt? You’ve probably seen the commercials that show the sad, sheltered animals or people overcoming a tragic illness. The appeal is meant to be heart-wrenching with the emotional song, the scenes of desperation, and then the outcome of what your dollar can do. They’re supposed to elicit compassion that makes you more inclined to donate. The guilt that gets tangled in there can be prevented or addressed with healthy boundaries. Other than these commercials and an act of heroism here and there, I see very few examples of compassion in the mainstream.
Can compassion be spread like love, kindness, and joy? Compassion is considered altruistic because when you have the desire to feel, listen, help, and be there for people, it’s rewarding for self. Compassion definitely sneaks its way into acts of love and kindness. There is overlap, but it seems to be harder to spread because it often involves acknowledging pain, suffering, loss, and misfortune. The desire to relieve someone of their feelings sometimes applies pressure to fix things. Often when you’re compassionate you have to acknowledge your own position and your privileges. You have to deal with not only what is handed to you, but what has been handed to another. Compassion is work.
Compassion doesn’t have to be all about relieving suffering. Empathy is also feeling others’ joy and excitement. Nobody says “I’m sympathetic to your happiness,” but I think those good feelings can be understood too. Could the line between relieving suffering and accentuating positivity and wellness blur so they both define compassion?
Additionally, to feel compassion is to, as they say, “put yourself in another’s shoes.” I made up a ‘game’ called “How Would You Feel If…” with three specific scenarios. The scenarios included: someone you haven’t spoken with in a while remembered your birthday, someone in the grocery market ignored and reached over you for their item, and someone made eye contact when asking you how you are doing. The point is to imagine what it feels like to have something specific happening to you.
A way we start to develop more compassion is by realizing our connection to other living beings. Spending more time outdoors might keep you from polluting or exploiting nature. Practicing mindfulness and meditation is a method for evoking sensations of oneness. Feeling interconnected makes us care more deeply for the wellbeing of others because it enhances awareness of others beyond the self. Mindfulness and meditation puts us in touch with our own feelings of being human so we recognize it in others.
Once you know what you would feel, you understand that you could easily do it for someone else. It’s difficult to know our impact on others, but becoming more aware of our feelings and our actions helps to be better. I feel excited and sentimental when someone unexpected remembers my birthday, so I try to remember and acknowledge other people’s. Are you less likely to cause harm when you remember your experiences of being hurt? Are you more likely to forgive once you’ve identified with the other person or attempted to see from their perspective? Can you better accept others for who they are when you see the qualities of them (that you either love or hate) in yourself?.
And then there’s self compassion. If you aren’t self compassionate when you make mistakes or start to feel down on yourself, toxicity grows. To be self compassionate, to me, means that you respect your limitations. There’s no need to constantly over-exert yourself and meet the standards of perfection. I feel like I say this in every post and every day, but balance must be in everything. Continue to foster personal growth, but learn to love yourself in this moment in time; give it all you’ve got, but give yourself a break. Self-compassion is just as hard as general compassion, though just as necessary. You deserve compassion like everyone else. Why rely on others to make you feel good, to relieve your suffering? Give to yourself what you give to others.
Love and kindness get the spotlight for making the world a better place, but compassion deserves a spot too.
Go figure out if you can teach or spread compassion (let me know how that goes). If you like this page, please share it!