Okay, I'll admit it. I always thought I was a compassionate person, but I guess I am really not. During a recent argument with my eldest son, my compassionate quotient came under fire. So, in an irrational attempt to prove him wrong and me right, I "Googled" the word compassion, and managed to prove that both of us had the meaning of compassion confused with empathy.
According to Dictionary.com, "Compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." Empathy on the other hand, refers to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person.
For argument's sake and the sake of my son, I am admitting I am generally more empathetic in nature. However, with that said, I would also argue that I am a compassionate person a majority of the time.
So started my quest to learn more about compassion, what society has to say in regard to compassion, what I/we can do to be more compassionate, and how compassion affects our every day life.
Society and Compassion
I began this journey by thinking of people in my own life who fit the definition of compassionate people. I am stilling working on that list, but honestly I am dismayed to report that I can only think of three people in all. However, I think it is only fair for me to say, that there are a great many people I know who I am confident are compassionate in their daily lives, but I am unaware of their good deeds because I do not see them daily. To you reading this, I do apologize - please forgive my ignorance.
Of my friends and family I see daily or almost daily, I can think of three people who fit the description of compassionate. Two of the three are my sons. The other is a person I worked with. Let's just say, her childhood was less than stellar, homelessness and hunger and the other issues that align themselves to that situation, were a constant part of her life. BUT, I have had the distinct pleasure of seeing her grow and pull herself out of poverty. Her successes are a constant source of joy to me.
So moving forward through this journey, my thoughts led me to think about the other people in my life, the quality of their lives, compassionate deeds they regularly partake in, and the judgment statements I myself have witnessed that negate them being compassionate on a regular basis. What I found hurt my heart. All of my friends and family are, at least, financially stable to affluent. All have their basic needs met and much if not all of their wants as well. Even the poorest of the group sport expensive name-brand items and eat out indiscriminately.
Around the holidays many of these folks donate time to feeding or clothing the homeless. Great! However, most of the time, the homeless are pegged as shysters, lazy and a general nuisance. Most have indicated having a difficult time around the homeless because they stink. Most cannot or will not make eye contact or dare to share a kind word or conversation.
This is what I know to be true. In general, the peoples that are financially the worst off are the most giving of money, time and energy. This made me curious to know if my case is special or if it is representative of the country at large. Is compassion situational? Is there a class bias?
I was dumbfounded to find that research generally shows less affluent individuals to be more likely to report feelings of compassion towards others on a regular basis. Even worse, other research studies showed that upper class individuals tend to be less compassionate. My next question; why would status and wealth lessen the feelings of compassion towards others? The answer may be less diabolical than it seems at first blush. Being rich or financially well off provides a sense of freedom and independence. When one does not rely on or need the help of others, then there is no need to care about them and their feelings. Inadvertently, wealth and status seem to be masking the wealthy's ability to recognize and care about the feelings of others.
As a result, as the wealthy keep getting wealthier and the poor poorer, the divide becomes even greater. One article noted that "levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years, and perhaps most alarming, they are declining at an increasing rate."
I think it should be noted that compassion is a virtue and should not be confused with pity. Compassion is rooted in love and takes on the pain of the sufferer, whereas pity does not. For compassion to work, we as individuals and as a society need to become better at instilling it in our daily lives, children, and workplaces.
Cultivating compassion makes you more caring which trickles down to your children, teaching them to be compassionate people by displaying your own compassionate acts for them to emulate. Basically, leading by example.
Compassion at home and in the workplace has its advantages over anger. The positive energy created by being compassionate versus frustrated and rash creates an environment that culls creativity and actually increases productivity. Think about it. Are you more likely to put in the extra effort to help your boss meet a deadline if s/he treats you poorly? Not even. Your care factor for helping them goes right out the door!
Simple Acts of Compassion
Putting a face on the less fortunate. Years ago an image of Audrey Hepburn carrying an emaciated African child was burned into my brain. Few people know that she spent years in Africa helping the helpless. She was compassionate.
Another picture, one I keep on my desktop, has elicited more than one conversation from my kids. I still cry every time I see it. I wish I could provide attribution to the photographer, as this picture has truly impacted me. When I got angry over the argument with my son, my mind immediately came back to this picture.
I need to stop being empathetic and start helping. I can do large things to help. Larger things may not be as sustainable but they are possible. And for the days I cannot do "BIG" works, I can easily adapt the following items even more and more consistently in my every day life!
• Put a face to the less fortunate
• Role play / life comparison (put yourself in their place)
• Simple help (show kindness)
• Make eye contact
• Show a simple but sincere smile
• Show emotions
• Have a conversation
• Pray with and/or for the homeless
Benefits of Compassion
Similar to the benefits of gratitude mentioned in my "Gratitude" blog article, research is starting to show the positive effects of being compassionate. If showing gratitude produces higher levels of positive emotions, satisfaction, even feelings of hope which have a real and measureable affect on our physical self, certainly the effects from being compassionate will be shown to have similar. I found it interesting to learn that being compassionate actually activates the pleasure center of the brain.
Compassion - feeling the pain and suffering of another person AND doing something to help is good for everyone. But indicators are showing that there is a downward trend in how we see others in need and how we respond. While participating in outreach programs during the holidays and local drives is fabulous, we have a need and a reason to act with compassion daily. The need is that so many helpless people need the help to gain hope and success. The reason to be compassionate is that one compassionate act builds on the act of another. The flip side of doing continuous altruistic acts of kindness for others - improvement of your own well being.