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COMPASSION: A WAY TO RISE ABOVE OURSELVES

By: Corey Ciocchetti

A perfect way to ponder compassion comes from professor Mason Cooley: “Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.” Isn’t that a wonderful way to think of it? When we’re compassionate, we stop worrying solely about our lives, our problems, and our to-do lists and begin to care about the plight of others. We plug into the people around us, lift them up, and try and make their lives shine. When we help people in need like this . . . we glow. Think about how amazing it felt the last time you truly felt someone’s pain and then helped them out of a rough spot. What a great feeling, right? Now, think about how the person you helped felt? Probably one thousand times better than you felt, right?

Let me add some context. When I was a little kid, we were flat broke. My dad was AWOL and I remember watching my mom struggle to find enough money to buy groceries. Though I don’t remember a ton about being seven years old, I do remember one day very clearly. I remember mom crying on her way to the mailbox one afternoon. She was working really hard, but money was tight. She got to the mailbox, opened the little door and found a $200 gift certificate for King Soopers (a local grocery store). It was in a blank envelope, no one’s name was attached. There was no postage; someone just stuck it in our mailbox and drove off. That money would buy us groceries for a month.

It’s tough to put into words the look on my mom’s face and her reaction. The best picture I can paint is: pure happiness and humbling thankfulness to the point of tears. I remember that she talked about this act of generosity non-stop for the next week. Who could have done such a kind thing? Why didn’t they put their name on it? How did they know that we were so desperate?

She went through names of people we knew and even called some friends and family members to ask. No one took responsibility. She thought it could have come from someone at our church, but how could they know our financial situation? We never found out who stuck that money in our mailbox. Of course, that was the donor’s point. It wasn’t done for the recognition, but merely because it was a compassionate thing to do.

Even without any recognition from us, my guess is that donor felt pretty good after such a kind act. But, I can promise that my mom felt one thousand times better. And, she passed that feeling on to my sister and to me – so much so that here I am writing about it 30 years later. The gift-giver made a huge difference in our lives with that $200. The act was the dictionary definition of true compassion. I’ll prove it.

COMPASSION DEFINED

According to Merriam-Webster, compassion is possessing “sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” What a great definition! Notice the two pieces of true compassion: (1) feeling sympathy and then (2) desiring to help. Too often we default to the sympathy piece because that’s easier. It’s easy to feel sorry for someone and do nothing to make life better for that person. We leave the help piece to someone else. In these instances, I guess we can call ourselves “half-compassionate” at worst or perhaps empathetic at best. That doesn’t sound so great does it? So, this week, let’s strive to do better.

As you think about how to be more compassionate this week, here are some common questions that help break down the concept:

1. HOW DO COMPASSION & EMPATHY DIFFER?

Compassion – properly defined – is a broader concept than empathy. Empathy is the ability to relate to other’s pain. Both compassion and empathy are virtues and worthy of praise when acted upon. Compassion, however, is more acting guiding. Empathy is a state of mind while compassion is a state of mind + some intentional actions to alleviate pain. Put it like that and I bet you’d rather someone show you compassion than empathy! Me too.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that your best friend lost her job. It was a good job and she relied on the steady paycheck. You empathize with her when you put yourself in her position and try to feel as if you just lost a much-needed job. Good friends emphasize like that. Compassion, on the other hand, is feeling sad that your friend lost her job AND then helping her find a better one or helping her get by for a few months. Awesome friends show compassion like that.

2. BUT, ISN’T COMPASSION JUST A FORM OF PITY?

Some people define compassion as the mere pitying of another. To pity someone is to feel sorry for them and their pain. The feeling may be sincere but, when we pity someone, we inherently think of them as lesser than we are. Think of commercials that show starving children in third-world countries. The intent is often to invoke a sense of pity in the viewer. And it works. We feel bad from them, but then rationalize doing nothing to help by saying that they are just so far away. In philosophy, this is called an “appeal to pity” – an attempt to manipulate someone’s emotions so that they give money or support a cause. It’s ethically questionable and isn’t that effective because we don’t see these people as our peers. We pity them but don’t necessairily have compassion for them.

This is why I think it’s a mistake to conflate compassion with pity. The origin of the word compassion (or it’s “etymology” for the nerds in the group) is Latin and means to co-suffer with another. Think about it like this: if you truly co-suffer with someone then you want the thing causing the pain to stop, right? That means that you desire to take actions to make it stop, right? You wouldn’t pity them or think of them as lesser than you. Their pain is your pain. So, I think the proper way to look at compassion is the sympathy + action definition above. Forget pity and practice more compassion. You cannot help everyone in need, of coruse, which is why empathy still matters. Sometimes that’s all people need – someone to empathize with them. But, there is a chance you can be more compassionate than you are today. That’s the goal for this week.

3. HOW DO I FIND THE GOLDEN MEAN OF COMPASSION?

Remember, you can lack compassion or be too compassionate. My guess is that the vast majority of us fall on one side or the other of this spectrum. Neither of these positions are virtuous and straying from the Golden Mean in this way is disruptive to authentic happiness.

For example, a person who lacks compassion is a jerk. Do you believe the world has too many jerks? Are you one of them? If so, you need to practice more compassion. This will move you towards the Golden Mean of this key virtue. This will also make you a happier person and your community a better place. That is one of my goals this week – to be less of a jerk and more compassionate.

On the other hand, are you too compassionate? These are the doormats of the world. And, being a doormat is not a good thing either. Doormats get walked all over, they are used and abused by the jerks of this world. Doormats need to be less compassionate! This will move you towards the Golden Mean of this key virtue. Who talks like that? Well, Aristotle of course.

His advice is for each of us to seek the Golden Mean between jerk and doormat. There lies true compassion.

IN CONCLUSION . . . BE COMPASSIONATE 
(YOU KNEW I WAS GOING TO SAY THAT)

So . . . here is your homework for the week:

  1. Identify whether you are more of a jerk or more of a doormat? Then, add some compassion to your life or remove some accordingly. Do this for a week and see if you start to become a happier person.
  2. Try to differentiate between pity, empathy, and compassion in your daily decisions. How often do you pity people? How often do you empathize with people but do nothing to help? And, how often do you act compassionately – feel sympathy and then lend a helping hand? Try to slowly move from pity to compassion keeping in mind that you cannot help everyone in need but you can help someone in need.
  3. Practice one act of compassion this week. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a huge financial or time commitment. The $200 given to my mom made a huge difference to our struggling family and my guess is that the donor barely felt the financial pain of the gift. Taking the time to chat with someone who is lonely counts too. As does helping someone gain confidence – whether in school or at a job. The universe of ways to practice compassion is vast so pick one.
  4. Oh and, by the way, compassion is what we expect from high-character individuals. This is why we answer, “Yes, for sure,” when asked if we are compassionate. No one says. “No, I’m really more of a jerk.” They may actually be a jerk, mind you, but no one admits that. We all want to at least appear compassionate. But, I believe that we actually want to be compassionate too. Here is your chance.

Let’s take a step back this week and think about and then practice what it means to rise above ourselves and care about others . . . to be truly compassionate.

For more information about Corey’s programs, visit http://www.campuspeak.com/speaker/corey/