This past spring, I read The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a beautiful conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a dialogue that pores over the need for cultivating joy in a world consumed by suffering.
There was one chapter which delved deeper into the word “compassion” in a way I hadn’t thought deeply about before.
Compassion is described as caring about other people. However, in the book, the Archbishop brings to light the Latin root compati meaning “to suffer with.”
com- ‘with, together’
pati- ‘to suffer’
I looked further and found the Latin word, compassion, is also a loan translation from the Greek word sympatheia.
Sympatheia: the “fellow feeling or community feeling.” Through time the word was adopted into Old French and that is where Google will tell you we take its definition from today.
After learning more about these definitions, I became unimpressed with the first definition the internet spit back at me.
Courtesy of Dictionary.com, compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Not the worst definition; I probably wouldn’t have questioned it before. But it fell flat for me after having read this interpretation from two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and beloved spiritual leaders.
This definition doesn’t address the key component of compassion I was challenged to see: the deeper invitation to suffer with, the thing that urges us to act on the suffering we see.
I then came across the word pity, which in my opinion, also doesn’t equate to suffering with. Pity is a way to hold onto power and personal comfort. When I pity someone, I do feel for them and their situation but I don’t feel a responsibility to actually do something. Pity allows me to stay at a distance and feel satisfied for having a conscience.
Compassion, on the other hand, asks me to step out of my comfort zone. I can pity people and feel sorry, but what will this change?
When I look at the foundation of compassion, I recognize the principle of interconnection.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This recognition of interconnection is huge.
It calls me to look beyond myself and link my struggle with that of my neighbor, and it asks me to bring a new or renewed sense of urgency for action; an urgency not determined by my proximity to a situation but by my ability to relate to others’ feelings.
How can we hold onto this big idea of interconnection without being totally overwhelmed and dropping everything all together?
First of all, compassion is a challenge renewed daily. There is always the opportunity to be more compassionate; the chances are never going to run out.
Secondly, I don’t want us to think it is merely a characteristic bestowed upon the saintly few. It is a skill we all can cultivate and live out in our own way and it is a practice which will make us more human.
I found this breakdown in the May 2016 edition of the “Clinical Psychology Review.”
The authors displayed the practice of compassion in terms of five elements which could be helpful. These elements include:
- Recognizing suffering.
- Understanding the universality of human suffering.
- Feeling for the person suffering.
- Tolerating uncomfortable feelings.
- The motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.
So these are the basics, the oatmeal without the cinnamon. Personally, I always appreciate more ideas so I’ve compiled a small list:
- Expand your reading: the stories and the sources. Oftentimes mainstream media is focused solely on the violence of crises. They miss the human perspectives. Find these narratives and place them within the bigger context.
- Be critical. Recognize the social structures at play and which voices are continually given the microphone. Notice harmful code words and characterizations that dehumanize and call them out. Also, take notice of what gets attention.
- Find rest and take care of yourself. Constant bombardment can lead to compassion fatigue and can cause us to fall into numbing disconnect from one another. Resist this. The world is in desperate need of your compassionate action. Find the rest you need but don’t avoid the world around you.
- Practice being present. Fully appreciating and finding gratitude for the moment you are in and the people who are around you. We truly have a lot to learn from each other.
- Try a daily compassion practice.
As we move into busy schedules, I compel you to take time for practicing compassion. Look for the connections and find the empathy which drives you to action. Blessings.