I recently had an exchange with Angie, and the topic of compassion was mentioned. Specifically, being a compassionate person. This got me to ruminating for a couple days. Not that I am not ruminating most of the time in general (I am) but this felt focused.
See, here’s the thing. If you asked me, “Are you a compassionate person?” I would say, yes, yes, I am. And then I’d add a caveat. I’m not entirely clear on what that caveat is though. I’ve fumbled around in my own mind as to what it is. I think part of the problem is the definition of compassion itself. This could be, as I believe in the case of the word love, that I might be walking around with an idea of compassion which is different from yours, i.e., that many or most of us have our own working definitions that are not necessarily all the same.
Compassion blends into other traits too. And that’s problematic. Is being compassionate the same as being empathetic? Is it being a pushover? “Turning the other cheek?” Is it being quick to forgive? Is it always doing the right thing? Is it helping wherever you see a need? Is it doing things you’d rather not? Where do ethics fit in?
I am careful, online and in life, not to sell or oversell my own traits, my own good points. This isn’t about being dismissive or downplaying what others may see in me as in: “Aw, shucks, I’m not all that smart” or “Do you really think I’m pretty?” or “No, I don’t think [insert whatever is being complimented] is very good.” It is more that I have an exacting nature and a specific goal to pinpoint the truth. Not to generalize or paint broadly – about much of anything and certainly not my own traits. So I hesitate over claiming compassion wholesale.
Moreover, the reality is, I have a tough time thinking of anyone I really consider a “(very) compassionate person.” Perhaps it is because I just don’t use the word itself that much? Or maybe it is because not that many people are very compassionate? Or maybe I just personally don’t know these very compassionate people who do possibly abound? Or my working definition is too strict?
When I think about my own self, I believe I am empathetic. And while I think there is a parallel between empathy and compassion, I’m not entirely clear on what that is either. They seem awfully similar so far as traits go. Empathy seems to be about an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Maybe compassion is about staying in your OWN shoes and still recognizing someone else’s concerns? Could that be it?
Empathy is, or feels, like something I was born with. It feels like a trait I can’t turn off, even when I want to. I can feel empathy for people I don’t even like. (That would be likely the time when I might want to turn it off.) I tend to know how other people are feeling and what they need emotionally. At times in my life, I’ve even participated in scenarios as something of an emotion broker: I listened to two or more people talking or haggling over an issue, and I then was able to explain to each person what the other was feeling, what their concerns were. (I only did this when it was clear they didn’t understand each other, so I was acting like an emotional interpreter.)
Compassion, on the other hand, seems more saint-like, more generous, a choice to be decent, kind, forgiving, tolerant, loving, a stand-up human being. Even when people are screwing up. Maybe especially when people are screwing up. And I’ve got some problems with this. I think maybe I’m less compassionate than I used to be. And to be honest, I’m kind of GLAD about that. I’ve been tolerant, too tolerant sometimes, in my own estimation. And I’ve concertedly changed that, or rather, have been changing that. Does being compassionate mean you’re a sucker? That you must overlook other people’s screw-ups? Always look for the best, no matter how miniscule the best may be? Forgive and forget? If that’s what compassion is, I’m really not interested.
Too much of my life, I’ve been in positions where I said to someone in so many words, “What you are doing is not okay. It is hurting people. I don’t like it. It’s not right.” And the other person said, “Yeah, I know, you’re right, it’s a problem, mea culpa, I’ll change.” And then promptly went right back to doing the same thing(!) [Repeat.]
It’s in vogue to say that everyone is doing “the best they can.” That people do horrible things because horrible things were done to them. That you can’t do better till you learn better. Etcetera. This kind of implies that one day each and every person will or could, in time, work things out – learn – and shape up. Um, that’s not what happens. A lot of people just get worse! If they get worse, can we really say they were doing the “best they could” in the first place?? That’s illogical. Moreover, I don’t believe everybody is doing the best they can. I’ve seen a bit of anecdotal evidence that they’re not. That they could do better and just don’t. How many people make being a very decent human being a big priority in their lives anyway? Am I too cynical here? Are most people trying to be very decent human beings and I’m just missing it?
When I do a crappy thing, I feel really bad about it. And honestly, the “crappy” things I’ve done, aren’t all that terrible. I know they’re not. I probably thought they were till I grew up, looked around, and saw what OTHER PEOPLE were doing! To wit: when I was a child, I had to go to “confession” at church. I’d sit around all week, trying to drum up sins to tell! The best I could come up with was nonsense like not brushing my teeth one night. I’ll grant you, I picked up the pace on “sinning” in subsequent years, but the fact remains, the times I’ve done wrong or caused harm, stand out for their rarity and for the fact they sat on my conscience. I still look around and am shocked by what people are willing to do. They don’t even seem to notice because they do these things all the time. And — when I know them personally, they don’t seem to understand what I’m making such a “stink” about.
My point being, everybody seems to be operating on their own set of rules as to what’s okay behavior. At a point, the LAW steps in and mandates a lot of it. But look how many people run afoul of the law! A lot!! Did you know that 1 in 31 people in the U.S. is either in the prison system or being monitored by it? Should I be happy about the 30 that are flying reasonably right? Or haven’t been caught? Or are operating in just such a way that they are above the law but possibly below human decency? Making judgments – and I make them – gets in the way of being compassionate, I expect.
There’s another piece to this. As I ruminated about the topic of compassion, I realized that very significantly, I’ve become more compassionate to myself. The compassion I turned outward, I began to turn inward. Now, a person might think, as you become more compassionate toward yourself, in turn you become more compassionate toward other people. Like, when someone stops judging themselves as much, they simultaneously begin to judge others less. Or the more love you give to yourself, the more love you have to offer. (This is often represented in the give-oxygen-to-yourself-on-the-plane-before-giving-it-to-others scenario, i.e., fill your depleted tank first so you have more to offer others.) But that’s not really what I’m experiencing. Maybe in the long haul it will be but it isn’t presently. What I used to give to others, I am giving to myself.
I now consciously choose not to be as compassionate as I once was, if that is in fact, the right word. It is not that I have erased empathy and compassion in my self. It is that I have become so much more conscious and conscientious about how I use them. The price tags were simply too high before and overtaxed my compassion/empathy spigots. And I just didn’t know that at the time. Or rather, I somehow believed I had to pay. It was all self-imposed.
I’ve learned that just because I start being compassionate in a situation or in regard to a person, it doesn’t mean I have to keep it up. If I see a reason to stop or dial it back, I now give myself permission to do that. I used to think once started, all in; no exits. But guess what? The Compassion Police don’t show up and your door and demand to know why you’re slacking off! Nothing happens! Maybe I used to think some terrible toll would be exacted for not towing the compassion line. For not offering second, third, fourth, fifth chances. (Because people wanted them or thought you SHOULD offer them or I thought I SHOULD.) And more than that; I don’t have to give chances AT ALL if I don’t want to.
Maybe empathy isn’t a choice – it’s involuntary as I’ve suggested, at least for me – but compassion IS.