Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.
While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.
For more: Learn about self-compassion and compassion fatigue. Read Dacher Keltner’s essay on “The Compassionate Instinct” and Paul Ekman’s “Taxonomy of Compassion,” which reviews different types of compassion.
What are the Limitations?
“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
We live in a world lacking in compassion. The sad reality of humanity is that the vast majority of people ignore the suffering of others. Perhaps many turn a blind eye for their own survival. Witnessing the suffering of another person can evoke raw emotion of fear or sadness or repulsion. Too often, people are detached or willfully blind.
We often learn compassion only after we have suffered ourselves—perhaps experiencing sickness, accident, illness, job loss, marriage breakdown, death of a loved one, prejudice, discrimination, social scorn, bad luck….
Why is compassion so important to humanity? Without it, we would descend into a state of war. We would continually witness 9/11, the detonating of the Atomic bomb, the wicked deeds of the Holocaust. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” I tend to agree. He also said that without government, “The natural condition of man is a condition of war. Everyone against everyone else. The Dalai Lama stated it best: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Based on my observations and own personal life experiences, I am not sure that humankind is hardwired for compassion. I don’t believe the virtue of compassion is innate. It’s not an inherent human attribute. It is my view that compassion must be learned.
What is compassion? It has two components. First, compassion means to put yourself in another person’s shoes, and ask yourself the following: What if I were that person? How would I feel? So, compassion means to develop an awareness of the suffering in another person.
Compassion has a second component. Once you have an awareness of the suffering, you must respond appropriately. To do nothing is not compassion. So compassion also means to embrace the “Golden Rule”—treat others as you desire to be treated. “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (Confucius) If you witness someone who is in pain, or requires assistance, or asks for help, you must come to their aid, you must lend a hand, you must offer assistance. In some small way, you must help the person alleviate his/her suffering.
And if you are unable to help, you must not make their plight worse.
On a more general level, compassion means to have genuine concern for all of humanity, not just your own tribe. It is my view that most people are compassionate to members of their own family, such as spouse, and children, but are blind or indifferent to the suffering of others, such as strangers.
Compassion also means to practise random acts of kindness and expect nothing in return. For example, If you see someone on the street, and that person requests some change, give it to them. Or give a donation to a worthy charity. Or donate your forgotten clothing to Goodwill..
Finally, compassion means to believe in the dignity, respect, equality, justice of everyone. It means to live peacefully and avoid engaging in violent behavior. We can agree to disagree, and still live peacefully. For instance, I am apposed to the wearing of the naqab at citizenship ceremonies in Canada, and have expressed my views to anyone who will listen, but I have no intention of engaging in acts of prejudice or discrimination. If a woman desires to wear the head-to-toe veil, this is fine with me.
Continually, I witness the suffering in my city, country, and in other parts of the world. Often when reading the paper, or watching the news, or perusing content on the Internet, I am continually reminded by the reality that the vast majority of humanity is suffering, and that most of us turn a blind eye. These unfortunate souls suffer because of war, poverty, disease, famine, religious extremism, environmental disaster, hatred, and more. Their suffering only ends the moment they take their last breathe. It rarely is extinguished by the compassion of the Super Powers, such as Russia, China, and the United States, who spend more money, time, effort on military hardware to defend the next enemy (real or imagined) than foreign aid to the poorest countries in the Third World.
In my own city, I have witnessed the lack of compassion. For the past four years, I’ve walked the streets of Toronto with my camera, documenting the homeless sprawled out on the sidewalks and poor who beg for a handout. They are completely ignored by 99% of the people— who somehow believe these unfortunate and unlucky souls don’t deserve their support. Sadly, it would seem that most strangers who pass the downtrodden blame the victim. “It is your own fault. You are a lazy $^&& sod who doesn’t deserve my assistance.” I work hard for my money. Why should I share anything with you?”
Over the year, I have witnessed first hand the lack of compassion by our public institutions. For instance, the Catholic Church’s shoddy treatment of homosexuals, wilful blindness to priests who were sexual deviants, opposing those who embrace same-sex marriage for love. The religious fundamentalism of Christians and Islamic extremists who express intolerance to anyone who doesn’t support their own narrow view of morality and faith. During our recent election, I read about and watched on television the indifference of Prime Minister Stephen Harper toward the refugee crisis in Syria. His apathetic response cost him his job. I look back into history, make note of how the Nazis treated the Jews, how an American President made the decision to dropped atomic bombs on innocent people, how Islamic extremists steered planes into the Twin towers, incinerating innocent people.
Most recently, I witnessed the general lack of compassion toward the elderly in our healthcare system. This past March, while mum descended into death at a particular hospital in Toronto, I witnessed first hand the indifference by several of the nurses and a doctor to her suffering. Their conduct was appalling, so shocking—- that I felt compelled to file a complaint against one doctor with the College of Physicians and Surgeons and another against two nurses at the College of Nurses. (I was told that the COPS receives 4,000 complaints a year against doctors.)
Why is there a lack of compassion in the world? Tribalism, individualism, secularism, religious extremism, social Darwinism, greed, envy, popular culture, prejudice, racism, hatred, revenge, indifference, the capitalist economy contribute to the general lack of compassion.
Some people are narcissistic. In fact, I have met more than a few. According to Psychology Today, “the Lack of empathy is one of the most striking features of people with narcissistic personality disorder. ” The narcissist in blind to the pain he or she inflicts on others. Nor does the narcissist take the time to understand the other person’s perceptions, feelings, view of the world. The narcissist is unable to imagine walking in another person’s shoes. Unfortunately, some people in power have narcissistic personality traits.
Living in a secular society doesn’t help the cause to educate people on compassion. Traditionally, people learned how to be ethical and moral by attending church. Now, the vast majority don’t.
Living in a world focused on success, individualism, material possessions, fame, fortune, me…. doesn’t help the cause.
Living in a world where the corporation focuses on making maximum profit doesn’t help the cause. I read this morning that Telus is cutting 1,500 jobs in Canada to increase dividends for shareholders. My reaction: “Utter greed.” Where is the human touch? The sad reality of the free market, capitalist economy is that the corporation focuses on maximization of profits, too often at the expense of shattering personal lives.
Popular Culture socializes the masses to be self-focused. Purchase yourself a smartphone and take endless selfies, then post them to social media. Popular culture also glorifies violence in video games and blockbuster movies, which desensitizes us to suffering and acts of violence, such as killing.
When people are suffering, perhaps grieving a loss, it is often impossible to feel compassion for others. The person who suffers focuses on fulfilling basic needs, such as survival.
I am not sure we are hardwired for compassion. It must be learned. Unfortunately, many people don’t learn to be compassionate.
How does a person begin to develop compassion? Karen Armstrong explains in her book, “The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”
We must educate ourselves about what it means to be compassionate. there are many ways, such as studying other religions or reading spiritual wisdom. If you are secular, read about spirituality. Learn what Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama have to say about compassion.
We must develop empathy-–become aware of the suffering in the world. We can Learn by watching film or television or the Web and by reading poetry, novels, newspaper, and magazines.
We must look at our own world. Charity begins at home. How does family nourish you? Is there compassion in the workplace? Are your friends toxic? Do they embrace a similar moral code and compassionate view of humanity?
We must develop compassion for ourselves. Each of us has a dark side. Be kind to yourself. Don’t blame yourself for things you cannot control.
We must become mindful of the suffering in our families, friends, community, country, and the world. In other words, we must become aware of other people’s suffering.
We must realize we don’t know everything, and that our way is not necessarily the best way. Too often, we fail to understand other cultures, other religions, other views and perceptions. Instead we gaze at others who are different through our ethnocentric lens. We too often believe our way of life is superior.
We must take action— help those who are suffering. We must discard the tribalism mentality, discard the ethnocentric view, discard the sense of moral superiority. Instead, we must embrace compassion as the highest of virtues.
We must practise Random acts of kindness, offering help to anyone who crosses our path and is suffering.
We must embrace the golden rule-Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
We must love your enemies. (Not easy to do.) It’s best to ignore them. Don’t seek to defeat and humiliate them. This will only create hatred and the desire for revenge. Instead we must strive to understand and befriend. Karen Armstrong writes” Only goodness can drive out evil, and only love can overcome hatred.” (page 182) The supreme test of compassion is to love your enemy. “We must learn to see sorrow in our enemies.” (page 188). Jesus preached “Love your neighbor has yourself.”
How I learned about compassion? My own suffering educated me on compassion, such as job loss, illness, financial problems, marriage breakdown, death of loved ones. Attending church as a boy and young adult also educated me on the importance of compassion.
In recent years, I’ve re-reading the New Testament and many books on Buddhism and spirituality. Recently, I read Karen Armstrong’s splendid book of wisdom—“The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, which has provided both a definition and steps on how to live the compassionate life. Her book ought to be required reading in both the public and Catholic schools.
I also continually educate myself by visiting the http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ website on a regular basis. It’s a website that offers numerous suggestions on how to develop spirituality—quotes, different types of practise, films to see, music to listen to, art to view, books to read.
And like yourselves, I witness to the suffering of humanity. I’m mindful to the suffering in my city. Every time, I stroll with my camera taking street photos, I see the countless homeless on the street, requesting pocket change for a cup of coffee or a meal. Watching the news or reading the paper, I’m aware of the suffering around the world. Poverty, Environmental disaster, Genocide,Terrorism, Famine, Civil War, Collateral damage from drones dropping bombs. As a student of history at university, I read about the horrors of humanity. The world is drowning in suffering.
Human life without compassion is hell on earth– a state of war. It would seem that compassion doesn’t come easy for many people. It is difficult to be compassionate when you are suffering. It is difficult to be compassionate in a world focused on success, material wealth, fame, fortune, rugged individualism. It is difficult to be in a world ruled too often by “corporations” that has no conscience. It is difficult to be compassionate in a world where popular culture glorifies violence in video games and film. And so, we must continually work at living the compassionate life.
Karen Armstrong reminds us: “To become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or day. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. ”
Her best advice on developing compassion: “Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”
• The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
• Spiritual Literacy by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
• How to Be Compassionate: A Handbook for Creating inner Peace and a Happier World by his holiness The Dalai Lama
About Dave HoodLover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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