What is Compassion?
Last time, we discussed the crisis we have found ourselves in over the past year and a half. We also talked about how that crisis has impacted each and every one of us not only at a societal level, but also at an individual level. We have become an angry species.
At first, we were mad that a pandemic illness had no vaccine so we needed it ASAP. Because we were mad that we had to wear a mask and social distance and limit the size of our gatherings. Then, when a vaccine rolled out, we were mad that it had come out so quickly. Too quickly some said. Then we were mad that we had to get a card proving we had been vaccinated. People were so mad about that, because they did not want the vaccine, that they spend large sums of money, even though the vaccine is free, to purchase fraudulent vaccine cards.
Not to be outdone, people were so mad about needing a vaccine against coronavirus in the first place, a vaccine that not too long ago they were mad did not exist, they started taking horse medicine to treat their COVID.
I use human COVID response as an example of what happens when anger becomes our dominant state of being. We become more and more irrational. We begin to even refuse to act in the very ways that we know will fix our situation and wind up creating more variants and make the original situation that. much. worse.
It goes deeper than merely our outward response to outside events. Eventually, we begin to direct that anger at others. We begin to blame others. We hold “them” responsible. “They” can be anyone, and are often the ones who are the least to blame. In our rush to find a scapegoat for our own inaction or for someone else to lay blame with, anything really to take any responsibility off our own shoulders, we hurt the very people who are trying to help even though they are suffering and struggling in every way that we are.
Because when anger takes root in our heart, compassion is choked out.
Compassion is defined as,
sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Our English word is actually a term borrowed from the world of religion. It originated in Latin, with its root word being Latin pati (pronounced passio), which means to suffer. It is where we get the English word passion.
The prefix, co, means roughly with. It is added to a word to say you are doing that action with someone else. Like cohabitating. Habitating with someone else. Living with them.
Compassion, then, means to suffer with someone else. When it was brought from Latin into Middle English, it often meant a literal sharing of affliction. Over time, the word has taken on a broader sense. As we might tell a six-year-old,
Compassion means we care about others, treat them with kindness, and feel a strong desire to help people in need.
That page goes on to state that, “Compassion is empathy in action.”
If you remember from a few days back, we began this discussion with a talk about empathy, which we saw was defined as
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
In other words, empathy is when we not only see that other people are suffering, such as walking into a place of business, seeing everyone else wearing a mas, and being asked to also put one on. We can see that everyone else around us is inconvenienced in the same way we are. Empathy is seeing this “suffering”, understanding that everyone else is suffering in same way, and then going one step further and actually understanding why.
Understanding why people are upset. Understanding why people have to be inconvenienced in this way. Empathy is this understanding.
Compassion takes us one absolutely necessary step further.
Empathy is not enough. It is not enough to just understand where people are coming from. It is helpful. In our current climate, it definitely goes a long way. We must also join them in their struggle. We must also share their feelings.
This does not mean that we feel the same way they do or adopt their opinions. Sharing someone’s feelings or suffering with them means that we shoulder some of the burden of those feelings so that they are not forced to walk that path alone.
Because here is the hard truth. When someone is directing anger toward us, whether in an individual or collective sense, we have done something to ignite that anger. We share some of the burden already for the situation. Maybe we are the ones who asked them to put the mask on. Maybe we hung the sign on the door stating they were required to wear it. It might even be something totally outside our control that has triggered their anger response. But we were the trigger. Compassion is making it clear that you understand why they are angry and uncomfortable. But then going further and expressing your own discomfort at the immediate situation and asking, “What can we do to get through this together?”
Because as long as each and every individual one of us is individually angry as some collective other, we will never move beyond where we find ourselves right now. Every day will be a new mandate from the government. Today it is mandated vaccines for larger businesses. Tomorrow it might be an individual mandate. Today it is simply suggestions that we wear masks in places where social distancing is not possible. Tomorrow it might be a complete nationwide mandate. Our own individual unwillingness to shoulder some of the burden for why we are where we are is precisely why we are still in the very same place we were eighteen months ago.
Because every single one of us has a responsibility to every single other one of us.