Compassion is the ultimate and most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity. It is through compassion that a person achieves the highest peak and deepest reach in his or her search for self-fulfillment. (Arthur Jersild, eminent child psychologist)
Developing and authentically practicing compassion is an ongoing evolution. It takes hard work, self-awareness, and a willingness to fail. It also takes courage and commitment because suffering is everywhere: from the woman down the street sitting alone day after day, to the businessman on Wall Street edging toward suicide, to the child in Darfur facing another day without food.
At the end of this article, you’ll find these elements of compassion again, in a table, along with the attributes that support them or stand in their way. You’ll also see examples of how these qualities manifest in how we feel and act. This table can be viewed as a touchstone to explore our own emotions and motives, and it can be used in both individual and community decision-making.
“Empathy is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies… and find ourselves… in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, and share in her pain…”
-Khen Lampert (philosopher and author of Compassionate Education)
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
-Philo of Alexandria (Hellenist Jewish philosopher at the time of Christ)
Some people think being kind is the most revolutionary act there is. It is absurdly easy to do, yet nothing leaves you as vulnerable. Kindness softens your skin, makes you let down your guard, opens you up to ridicule, or worse. It carries no sophistication or complexity, needs no great intellect to carry out. It is as simple as a loving touch.
Aldous Huxley was even a little chagrinned by how basic it is when he said, late in his life, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than “Try to be a little kinder.”
Kindness demands action: you hold a hand, you walk more slowly to match your grandchild’s stride, you give money to a stranger, you say thank you. Even just a kind thought translates into action by criticism and gossip withheld, for example, or giving an encouraging smile.
Kindness has come out of the closet lately. Countless web sites are devoted to it, people tweet suggestions for acting kinder, and descriptions of great acts of kindness fill valuable billboard space.
It is even becoming a legitimate subject of scientific research. A community of psychologists and social scientists investigated the causes and consequences of kindness, often called compassionate love, and their findings can be found in The Science of Compassionate Love.
Swedish doctor Stefan Einhorn in his book, The Art of Being Kind, argues that acts of kindness give the giver good feelings and “good deeds spread out like ripples on a pond. Societies with widespread kindness and ethical wisdom,” he says, “function far better.”
There can be no compassion without kindness.
Generosity is a mindset. It shows itself when we are more eager to give than we are afraid of giving something up. And it manifests in all kinds of gestures.
Giving money and time are the most obvious signs of generosity, but no less generous is to believe that people do the best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. In other words, when we give people a break, we recognize their humanness and our collective struggle.
The Qur’an asks, “What actions are most excellent?” And then it answers its own question, “To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured.” These are the timeless acts of generosity.
Not content to simply know the power of generosity, science has set out to prove its value. In Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post and Jill Neimark describe numerous studies that support that our brains may be wired to benefit from reaching out to others. For example, Stephanie Brown at the University of Michigan followed 423 older couples. After adjusting for other variables, she found that those who provided significant support to others were more than twice as likely to remain alive during the five-year period of the study.
If something is good for us on such a profound level, it’s easy to believe it’s the best way to live, individually and as a culture. But it’s hard to know if generosity is a natural inclination, or if it must be learned. Whatever its origins, when we don’t act generously, our hearts shut down and we become miserly as we hoard our natural surplus of goodwill and love.
Forgiveness is one of the world’s most misunderstood qualities. People say that there are unforgivable sins, that forgiveness is weakness, or that when we forgive, we just open ourselves to more pain.
Yet Bishop Desmond Tutu offers a more practical view of forgiveness: “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously, [but] drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens our entire existence.” Forgiveness is not just for the well-being of the other person, it is also for our own.
The book Picking Cotton chronicles the story of a woman, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, who mistakenly names a man, Ronald Cotton, as her rapist. He was sentenced to life plus 50 years. Thompson-Cannino says that if he had been sentenced to death, she “would have gladly pulled the switch.” After 11 years, more sophisticated DNA testing exonerated him and the real rapist was convicted.
It’s not such an unusual story: an innocent person sent to prison, but what makes it astonishing is what unfolded after Cotton’s release. He forgave Thompson-Cannino and helped her forgive herself. Their coming together in forgiveness and eventually friendship seems nearly impossible, but it happened, and they have used that grace to help others do the same.
Few things have produced such misery as the inability to forgive. Yet when we can forgive, we change not only our little piece of the world, but the world at large. And every time we do, we strengthen the foundation of compassion.
Forgiveness is just one response that can break the cycle of anger, hatred, suffering, and violence. Another is peacefulness. In a thesaurus, “passivity” is listed as a synonym for peacefulness, but living out of peacefulness takes hard work and is anything but passive. After all, the alternatives are the easy, sanctioned, knee-jerk emotions: hostility, rage, and aggression.
As a 19-year-old, Jarvis Masters was sent to San Quentin for armed robbery. Nine years later, he was sentenced to death for allegedly participating in the killing of a guard. He remains on Death Row. Masters converted to American Buddhism in prison and took a vow never to knowingly harm others, but to try to help them. In his book, Finding Freedom, he describes how difficult it can be to practice nonaggression in prison.
One day an inmate started to throw something at a seagull in the prison yard. Masters, without thinking, put out his hand to stop him, which angered the inmate. He demanded to know why Masters did that. Again, without thinking, Masters said, “I did that because that bird’s got my wings.”There was something in that answer that stopped the inmate’s need for retaliation, and the crowd, that was itching for a fight, started to laugh.
Both of Masters’ responses were peaceful reactions to potentially violent acts. And Masters understood the urge toward violence in himself. “All of us can practice nonviolence,” says the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “We begin by recognizing that, in the depths of our consciousness, we have both the seeds of compassion and the seeds of violence.”
For compassion to work on any scale, peacefulness has to be part of it: both the desire and the capacity for it. We must try to cultivate an inner peacefulness that can override our instincts and allow room for compassion to flourish.
Integrity is all or nothing; there are no degrees. If we lose it, we have to start all over to regain it and then work ceaselessly to hold on to it. Integrity is the subtlest of all the ingredients of compassion and it defines our character. Although integrity is greater than the sum of its parts, a few of those parts are honesty, honor, reliability, respect, and a sense of justice.
When Senator Ted Kennedy died in August 2009, his whole life was in the spotlight and the American public got a chance to reflect on who he was, what he stood for, and how he lived his days. What emerged was a stunning example of a person who lost and won back his integrity, time after time. He did shameful things and redeemed himself. In the end, he died an honorable man. He had integrity.
Although Senator Kennedy and conservative talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger were worlds apart politically and culturally, her remarks on integrity would be something they could have agreed on: “Don’t worry so much about your self- esteem. Worry more about your character. Integrity is its own reward.”
Integrity is one of those moral compass points, sitting at true north along with a handful of other qualities that give us something to hold to and steer by. Without integrity, we cannot be fully compassionate. Our actions will fall short, be suspect, or be compromised.
Responsibility can be a weight on our shoulders, especially if others demand it of us. Or it can be a source of freedom, like the Existentialists wrote, by being the one thing in our control that we can either accept or deny.
Do we need to be responsible to be compassionate? That’s an arguable question, but if being truly compassionate involves assuaging pain and stepping up to the plate to do what’s right, then, yes, we have to be responsible to be compassionate. Without responsibility, we are unreliable, a quality that can leave havoc in its wake. Taking responsibility for our own actions requires that we know and care about their consequences on others: that takes empathy, and empathy leads to compassion.
The responsibilities of nations toward their citizens are defined in terms of human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, lists the rights to freedom, justice, privacy, social security, education, freedom from slavery, and freedom from torture. A nation that adopts these rights has the responsibility to uphold them.
The responsibilities of an individual toward herself, the people around her, and the larger world are defined in terms of personal commitments. A person who pledges, formally or quietly in herself, to live by the things she believes in, then has the responsibility to uphold them.
Sometimes we become over-responsible, thinking we have to help the whole world, and then often we do nothing because the task is overwhelming. The American writer and essayist Gail Hamilton wrote that, “Every person is responsible for all the good within the scope of his abilities, and for no more.”
The permission she gives us to keep our responsibility human-scaled, and humanly feasible, reminds us that even acting responsibly within the limited circle of our own possibilities is enough.
When flight attendants give their pre-takeoff safety speech, they always say, “in the event of a drop in cabin pressure, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Self-compassion is a prerequisite for compassion toward others. We’re really no good to anyone if cannot feel our own self-worth.
Of all the ingredients of compassion, self-compassion is perhaps the most difficult for those of us in the Western world to cultivate. We are not experienced at loving ourselves unconditionally. It feels wrong somehow. Some religious traditions teach us that we are flawed, that we are sinners. Even if we no longer believe these things, they often remain deeply ingrained in our psyche.
To truly embrace a life of compassion toward others, we have to break this grip and dare to have compassion for ourselves. It takes courage to treat ourselves with the kindness and generosity we may so easily show others. Like compassion for others, developing self-compassion is a practice, and it takes time and commitment.
Self-compassion provides motivation for taking care of our physical and mental health. The healthier we are, inside and out, the more effectively we can act compassionately toward others.
Self-compassion and gratitude go hand in hand. When we truly are thankful for the everyday gifts of life, we automatically lower our demands upon ourselves to unreasonably improve ourselves. Furthermore, research has found that when people feel gratitude, they are more likely to be generous with others.
We don’t have to be of a certain age to be wise. Sometimes startling wisdom comes out of a five-year-old. Wisdom is simple and can be intuitive. It happens when we cut through life’s clutter and see clearly. It’s also crucial to compassion because it allows us to make good decisions, to act out of our best intentions, and to understand when things may not work out the way we planned.
Truly listening and being fully awake to those around us nourishes wisdom and so improves all future attempts to reduce the suffering of others.
As we become wiser, it’s a good idea not to pat ourselves on the back too much, because pride leads to arrogance, which is an even greater stumbling block to compassion. A chief of the Iroquois Confederacy’s Onondaga tribe, Oren Lyons, said that, “We are, after all, a mere part of the creation – and we stand somewhere between the mountain and the ant.” Humility is the healthier companion to wisdom. If we begin to think ourselves better than others, compassion doesn’t have a chance.
Most us weren’t brought up to believe that compassion should be the major purpose of our lives, but if we choose to see it that way, it can slowly become that central focus. All we need to do to get started is to commit to improving each of these nine components of authentic compassion. We can pay attention to them, watch when we act out of them, and notice what challenges make us turn away from them.
Practicing one component or ingredient of compassion reinforces or sustains other ingredients. The “sustainable compassion” diagram depicts this interdependence of the ingredients. The more we practice all of the ingredients in concert, the more we experience the self-sustaining nature of authentic compassion.
Karen Armstrong, who also was the chief architect of the Charter for Compassion , said that, “Compassion is hard work, all day and every day.” However, over time compassion becomes easier and easier, in part because we begin to notice the gratifications of compassion more and more.
The human race today has more ways to destroy itself in than past centuries. Depletion of natural resources and growth of high-risk weapons put us all in greater and greater danger. Concurrently world problems of hunger, disease, crime, and war continue to swell. Compassion, for ourselves, for those around us, and for those all over the world, is essential if we want to move forward as a species. It is time for each of us to reflect on our values and explore new solutions, tending, especially, to the deep center of our hearts where the ingredients of compassion wait to be of service.
Appendix: Ingredients of Personal Compassion
|Empathy||Attentive Caring||Callous* Detached||Quiet listening;|
|Kindness||Altruistic Respectful Helpful||Spiteful Thoughtless Indifferent||Visiting with an elder;|
|Generosity||Charitable Unselfish||Greedy Stingy Self-centered||Volunteering;|
|Forgiveness||Open-hearted Merciful||Vengeful Ruthless||Mending fences;|
|Peacefulness||Tranquil Nonviolent Even-tempered||Impatient Angry Hostile||Resisting urge for revenge;|
|Integrity||Ethical Trustworthy Honest||Sneaky Disrespectful||Returning money overpaid to you;|
|Responsibility||Fair Tolerant Courageous||Bigoted and intolerant Undependable||Dodging consequences;|
|Self-compassion||Nonjudgmental Grateful Courageous||Self-hating Insecure||Accepting yourself;|
|Wisdom||Perceptive Informed Open minded||Shut down Dismissive Shallow||Not doing battle with life;|
*All boldfaced words are negative emotions that block or undermine compassion.