Tag Archives: empathy

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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Don’t yawn!

It’s almost spooky when you consider it to see someone yawn and immediately feel the urge yourself. The last word has yet to be said on the subject, but did you know there have been studies, well at least one I’ve read about anyway, connecting yawning to empathy?

The theory also suggested that yawning could have been the signal in ancient societies (here I picture cave men and women sitting around the fire relaxing after a nice dinner of flambéed buffalo) that it was time to go to sleep. One person yawns and you know how it goes, the rest follow suit.

Certain people according to the study, are more susceptible than others depending on their levels of empathy. I am so vulnerable that when I read the word in a book or say it aloud to myself I induce a yawn. Are you yawning now??

They should have a study to secretly ferret out sociopaths by putting them in a  group of yawners to see if they’d follow suit. I bet they’d just sit there, twiddling their thumbs, wondering when refreshments would be served.

Short Thought 71 (elderly)

When I’ve interacted with elderly people who were vulnerable or not entirely on top of their game, I’ve tried to be kind and empathetic, careful not to make them feel bad, the way I hope it’ll be one day if I am the elderly, confused person.

Sometimes though, I’ve dealt with elderly people who became nasty about their limitations, snapping as if I was the one who didn’t know what was what. I don’t care if you’re 108; start calling me “girl” and worse, we gonna have a problem – even while I suspect being mean or getting angry is one of the last powers some older people have left.

Weight-loss shows tug at my emotions

I watch a smattering of reality TV, although I’ve never seen quite a few of the well-known shows since I don’t have cable (and if I ever went out of my way to watch those online I’d think my life had reached a new low). Anyway,  although I’m not a regular viewer, I’ve occasionally watched pieces of the network weight-loss programs. These shows invariably make me cry – and I’m not being sarcastic.

I believe addictive and compulsive behaviors, no matter what they are, spring of the same sources, i.e., emotions. Many addictions and compulsions can be hidden to a certain degree, but a food one is different. It’s different because the evidence of it is obvious to others and because, unlike other addictions, we all have to eat.

The participants on weight-loss shows are undeniably vulnerable and exposed. There is no hiding, not emotionally or physically. The things many of them say completely pull at my emotions. It isn’t pity but empathy I feel. Not because I’ve been in their situation but because no matter how orchestrated the show might be, there is no denying the authenticity of another human admitting to their deepest shames and needs, nor the actual physical and emotional demands placed on those who undertake significant weight loss on such shows. Yes, for adults (less so children), they got themselves to that unbalanced position in the first place, but it takes guts to want to turn things around.

Admittedly, I also feel glad I’m not in their shoes. Someone who loses and keeps off significant weight has to change almost everything in their life, everything they relied on, and in the process trust strangers – trainers, nutritionists, doctors – even when it seems like the people who are supposed to be helping are coming off mean or aggressive. That is a lot to ask. If someone was yelling at me about doing “one more pushup!” and not being a “quitter” and worse, when I am sweating and heaving and feeling like I’m going to die (or would prefer in that moment to be dead), I really don’t think I’d take it well. Not to say, all the folks on the receiving end DO.

I cry when the women get to try on and wear cute clothes for the first time in years or ever. When a woman says now she’s no longer afraid she won’t be alive to attend her children’s weddings or see her grandkids grow up. When a man stands a little taller and can’t stop grinning.  Or feels he may now be more attractive to his wife and can stop withdrawing and withholding from her. When a child feels like he’ll be able to keep up and play with the other kids now and maybe have friends. It all gets to me. Because again, no matter how manipulative or even exploitative shows of this type are considered (by many?), the emotions are real. The person’s reality is genuine. When they succeed, it makes me vicariously happy. I’m excited for them.