Compassion?

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.

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22 thoughts on “Compassion?

  1. Blackbird

    I’m not compassionate. I’m really not. I believe I’ve become selective even with my empathy nowadays. I have gotten, very, very, good at not giving a shit about people. The “I won’t save you if you’re drowning” kind of not giving a shit.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I hear you Blackbird. Is it possible we sometimes swing far one way to (over?) correct for having been at the other end? I know my compassion is deep-fried toast in terms of specific people….

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      1. Blackbird

        I’ll admit I’m far less tolerant with people I’ve known for years than with people I’ve met just recently. I think it’s that “been there done that” feel when you know how many times that person’s made the same stupid choices.

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  2. vanbytheriver

    You have a lot of food for thought in there ! I’ve been told that I have a lot of compassion, but I’m sure it has come with life experience. When you are damaged in any way as a child, or you see the hurt in those around you, you learn it early. The alternative, I guess, is to become jaded or bitter. Very provocative post, Colette. Van

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks Van. That you have heart comes through in your blog and comments for sure.

      That’s almost another post topic you’ve mentioned! I certainly developed a protective streak (of vulnerable people, children, animals) from my own childhood and a tendency to champion the underdog.

      I think I am shooting for a ground that lives between compassionate and bitter/jaded.

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  3. gloriad54

    You’ve brought up so many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t give the benefit of the doubt to anyone anymore, but I think I can still feel compassion for their ignorance or cluelessness, as long as I don’t have to be involved with them or affected by their behavior. The whole “they would do better if they could” thing — I get that, because I have to forgive myself for the times when I didn’t know better, but I believe our purpose here is to extend ourselves beyond our weaknesses and preferences. If someone is aware and accountable, then I give them chances, because I know how hard it is to change ourselves. But if I don’t see any acknowledgement, then I’m gone. Wow. Great post. I know I’ll read it again and think some more about it.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you so much. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I feel just the same: I want to see some acknowledgment and progress – not just lip service, whether it’s to me or anybody else.

      Your comment reminded me too of something I say. I may feel sorry for a rabid dog but I am still going to keep my distance (and certainly not try to pet it or let it come in my home).

      When I have doubt, there’s usually a reason. I will take a wait-and-see attitude when I can because my philosophy is “gather more information” when undecided. I don’t want to become rigid but at the same time I want to see things for what they are, even if they’re unsavory.

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  4. C.E.Robinson

    This is a wonderful, thought-ful post. I had to think about the subject in terms of differences in definition. You can be both empathetic or compassionate depending on the circumstances or situations. In my mind you are both. I’ve read many of your blog posts and again you are thoughtful and insightful on any topic. That shows empathy or compassion for people and yourself. Christine

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks so much Christine for the kind words. I deliberately didn’t look up definitions for empathy and compassion when writing the post because I wanted to explore what I thought they were, even unconsciously. They are both so abstract, and its their application that interests me. And whether I’ve applied them in the best way. I know I will continue to think about that as future situations arise; i.e., how compassionate do I want to be and at what cost?

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  5. Andrew Davis

    Your approach to understanding others is innocent and guileless. Without saying it, you stumbled onto empathy, feeling for others with yourself in the background, almost like a shadow.
    Compassion comes to others more easily because it allows the foundation of selfishness to roam freely in relating to others ie I know just how you feel. The emphasis on I, so that the one to whom you are compassionate feels a bond of similarity.
    Empathy is more challenging because the I is removed. You were able to get through to those individuals because they felt heard and validated. You were merely the vessel for their own self-awareness. For many, being empathic is innate and they have the gift of detachment from self in order to be a blank slate for others. Empathy can be lonely for the listener and often the only reward for taking on someone else’s pain is not breaking down yourself.
    Thought-provoking piece as always.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Andrew, I appreciate the thought you gave this and your interpretation of empathy vs compassion. I do see what you’re saying, I think. Maybe one way to look at this is to say empathy can’t be taught; it’s there or not, but compassion can be taught, which is why the person is aware of it, is the I in it the way you suggest.

      Funny you mention pain; at times in the past I have acted like what I think of as a *pain sponge” for others, absorbing it for them.

      I’m afraid although I started innocent and guileless in these matters, I’m not so certain I could claim either any more!

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      1. Andrew Davis

        Ohhh… a pain sponge. For me it was wounded bird syndrome. Nursing people back to health only to have them abandon me (fly away and live their own life). I see empathy as innate and the way it is best suited for both parties is with clear boundaries.
        Your discoveries of self and motivations behind it are innocent and guileless. You’re not trying to subvert others’ beliefs, you’re sharing conclusions from your discoveries. (grin)

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  6. David Goorevitch

    Wonderful post, incisive by way of the fine distinctions you make. I think of empathy as passive and automatic. You needn’t do anything about your feelings. Compassion is active.
    One thing I noticed though — you are equally compassionate as an “emotional translator” as you are when you speak up to someone who’s causing harm to others. Your action is different in each case and so are the beneficiaries. Compassion is often wrongly understood as an act of forgiveness toward the perpetrator. It is also an action of compassion for the victim against the perpetrator.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Interesting distinction you’ve made in the passive vs active. I will need to think about this!

      Yes, people often do correlate compassion with encouraging leniency toward perpetrators; yet there is nothing in the word/concept that mandates who it’s applied to.

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