I drive past homeless people almost every day. Sometimes, especially when it’s raining, I will lower my car window and hand over a dollar. But more often, I confess, I simply look the other way. I guess I’m more compassionate in the rain than I am in the sunshine. I do understand that feeling compassion for the homeless is an emotion very different for me than having empathy, simply (and thankfully) because I’ve never been homeless.
To be clear, I turned to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
By way of another example, I recently fell off my high heels right there on the sidewalk in front of Whole Foods. Naturally, I was wearing short skirt and when I went down, I felt humiliation before I felt pain. A random stranger hopped out of her car to see if I needed any help. That woman had compassion! (By the way, I’m fine.)
We see compassion every day, in the grocery store, in the workplace, in the mall, and in the bank. Sometimes compassion can also be good manners, as in holding the door open for a mom pushing a stroller while also herding a toddler. And other times, compassion is simply realizing that it’s the right thing to do, like donating our gently used clothing to a women’s shelter.
Can compassion be taught? I think so. And I think it typically happens in our childhood, as we’re taught by our parents and teachers. Nowadays, elementary schools are helping children choose kindness over bullying. I agree that kindness is the obvious antidote to bullying, but do you think kindness the same as compassion?
I know I’m throwing out a bunch of words and concepts that are similar and quite possibly confusing: compassion, sympathy, kindness, empathy. It might be more efficient (in a three minute read) to mention what I consider to be the opposite of compassion — people who are selfish, hard-hearted, unfeeling, and merciless. Do I judge those people? Sometimes, at first. And then it occurs to me that maybe they weren’t taught compassion when they were children. And then I feel sorry for them because they might be lacking a significant characteristic of basic humanity. I guess that means I’m compassionate.
I volunteer for a wonderful organization called “Adam’s Place,” which is a non-profit designed to help children cope with grief and loss. I have the privilege of being the adult facilitator, working with the parents of these children, who are also suffering through unimaginable loss. While we aren’t all sharing the exact same grief, we have compassion for each other, and it shows up in conversation as well as in silence. I see it in the passing of the box of tissues, in the hugs, and in the exchange of phone numbers. I don’t know if these parents were taught compassion at an early age. What I do know is that it comes from the heart.