Can Compassion Be Taught?

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? If I had to guess I’d say through listening mostly. I’ve been told that I’m a compassionate person, but now that I think about it, I never truly understood what that meant or what I was doing to be compassionate. 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. Some may have little compassion for anyone else except animals or children. Other people may only have a special bond with the elderly. 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 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 needs extra communication before a lesson transition (“After calendar we go to the writing 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? 

The Goddess of Compassion

In my efforts to answer these questions I think of nature/nurture. So compassion can be both innate and a product of environment. Perhaps 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. It doesn’t mean that everybody in the US only cares about themselves and their own families, but certain perspectives are embedded in the cultural values. This raises another question. Can compassion be spread like love, kindness, and joy? Maybe you’ve seen the commercials that show the sad, sheltered animals or people overcoming a disability. The appeal is meant to be heart-wrenching with the emotional song and the scenes of desperation then the outcome of what your dollar can do. They’re supposed to elicit compassion that makes you more inclined to donate. Although, have you noticed that when you’re asked to feel compassion that it often comes with guilt? Anyway, compassion could be considered altruistic because when you have the desire to feel listen, help, and be there for people, it’s rewarding for self. 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. 

Caring enough for other beings to get over the “humps” in life

Maybe compassion is more likely to be felt when we start realizing our connection to other living beings. Spending more time outdoors might keep you from polluting or exploiting nature. Additionally, to feel compassion is to, as they say, “put yourself in another’s shoes.” If you caught me on social media this week, I posted a “game” I made up called “How Would You Feel If…” and gave three specific scenarios (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) in order to feel something happening to you that you could easily do to/for someone else. 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 might be just as hard as general compassion, though just as necessary. 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), and if you like this page, please share it! 

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