What Is Compassion?

Define It

Merriam Webster:

“sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

Synonyms: commiseration, feeling, sympathy

Lexico.com (Oxford):

“Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”

Origin: “Middle English via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with’.”

Compassion International:

“The meaning of compassion is to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion embodies a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering.”

Fredrick Buechner:

“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.

It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

 

The Bible:

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

(And many other examples)

What Is Compassion?

From the definitions above, we can see the two things that need to exist together in real compassion:

Empathy + Action

And There, We See Our Problem

Empathy. To “live inside somebody else’s skin.” We’ll do that, from time-to-time, but overall, I’d say we have a problem trying to see from another’s perspective, live in their skin, understand the pain and suffering they experience.

Why?

There are probably a million reasons we could explore. I don’t have the absolutes here. All I know is, we need to work on our empathy. We need to work on our listening, our understanding, our action.

When men and women of color cry out against centuries-long systemic oppression and racism, we need to listen.

When men and women of color are being killed, but we look for ways to criminalize them – thinking this somehow justifies their death, we need to listen and act.

When Indigenous men and women tell us how they are being forgotten, erased, and shoved aside, we need to listen.

When the poor, homeless, refugees and so many others beg for basic human dignity, nourishment, and safety, we need to listen.

We need to:

  1. Listen – We cannot know how best to act unless we first listen and understand. We will cause more harm if we act without listening.
  2. Act – If we have the resources, if we are able in any way to alleviate the suffering that surrounds us, we need to act.

For, “there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

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