When you think of the word compassion, what images do you conjure up? Selfless folks taking a few hours to feed the poor at a soup kitchen during Thanksgiving, or sending flowers and stopping by with a casserole to a sick friend or relative? Those are very accurate descriptions of some wonderful acts of good. I believe a lot of us have a notion that compassion would be some act of kindness that we can carve a little time out for now and again to make the world a better place. Again, you would be correct in thinking those things, and should continue to think and do so. Have you ever stepped back to wonder what genuine compassion is though? What it means to be “all in” compassionate? With a world in such angered turmoil right now, maybe it isn’t a bad idea to think over.
The definition of compassion, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is:
“sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Sympathetic consciousness of others' distress… Let’s look at that for a moment. There’s a Buddhist parable the Dalai Lama has used to convey this thought of pure compassion on the part of the outsider, or the one who offers compassion, if you will. It’s a simple but powerful sentence and concept. He suggested that if you see a man beating a dog without mercy, you should feel compassion for the man.
For most, that image makes the hair on the back of ours neck stand up, and fists clench, but before we get too riled up, let’s examine it for what it is.
How many times have you beaten a defenseless being yourself, even if it was just verbally? Have you ever totally lost your cool with your young children? Elderly parents? The woman at the coffee shop making your latte in the morning before you’ve fully woken up? A customer service representative on the phone? A reply or heated argument related to a Facebook post? A spouse?
Have you ever abused someone verbally or physically, because of your mood or because you were going through a rough patch in life? Maybe just having a bad day when nothing went right? Have you discovered your abusive behavior is a reaction to something else going on in your life that you’re having a very hard time handling or adjusting too? I’ve known kind people who have acted anything but kind when they simply get hungry (I think the official term for being angry when you’re hungry is “hangry”).
Abuse of any kind is, well, unkind. It should not be tolerated, but how many times have we looked deeper into the heart of the suffering (the abuser) to see what the real issue is? A bad childhood? Poverty? Abandonment? Jealousy? None of these are excuses, and can all be worked on to rectify, but I still argue they are reasons for why people act unkindly sometimes.
And then there’s the “…with a desire to alleviate it” part, referring to the distress one may suffer. Remember the man beating the dog? How willing are you to not only understand what he may be going through, but having the conviction and wisdom to want to help him? And not for yourself, or the dog’s sake, but help the man for his own sake? That’s tough. Real tough.
There’s a lot of people who suffer. People who are scared, feel inferior, unloved, lonely, and forgotten. They all suffer. Their manifestation of that suffering may come out in the forms of anger, sadness, isolating behavior, or mean-spiritedness. They would probably be the first to tell you they don’t think they deserve, or have earned your kindness. That’s the issue with so many who start drawing that line as to when they will stop offering compassion. We’re under the impression that people need to earn it. We look at the homeless or hungry and deem them worthy, but we let the others slip through the cracks, because mean people don’t deserve it. This compassion thing can be tough business sometimes.
Offering understanding and kindness to those who we think don’t deserve it is not easy. Make no mistake about that. Thinking and acting with compassion on a constant basis, without judging, mind you, is a challenging full-time job. The act of this sometimes difficult compassion is not for the weak. Don’t ever let someone tell you that compassionate, I mean really compassionate people are sissies. The truly compassionate are strong, and tough individuals. There’s a reason Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi are all etched permanently in the history books, and are looked upon with such admiration and reverence. It wasn’t just their kindness that left an indelible impression upon us, it was their ability to see the good in every situation and empathize with all, seeing things from everyone’s perspective.
How compassionate are you? In seeing the fear in people’s hearts through their actions or behaviors? People are suffering, and they need your help. Have you just been looking for it in the wrong places?
Let me be your tour guide to life. I'm the author of "Learning to be Human Again", and just like you, I'm still happily trying to figure this wonderful life out.