Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart, the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others. There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. Nor is there any denying that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill-will, the more miserable we become. Thus we can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion.
Compassion is the golden thread that binds us to the world. Connecting each of us to all other people, places and things, it is the medium through which we will take care of each other and ensure the earth's survival. Compassion is not a luxury we may allow ourselves when we're feeling magnanimous: it is a necessity for our survival. As Martin Luther King summed it up: "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
Because compassion is "heart work" it is easy to confuse it with sentimentality. But compassion is not about feeling sorry for others - it is about feeling together with others. It is being touched by someone else's pain and realizing that our peace and joy ultimately depends on there being peace and joy for them too. It is therefore also about taking action to alleviate the pain, restore equilibrium, and secure peace and happiness. Indeed, compassion cannot be divorced from caring action. It implies an urgency in attaining the liberation of all beings and the achievement of social justice. Without action, our caring is superficial, self-indulgent and sentimental.
Compassion is not without its pitfalls. A compassionate heart open to the pain and suffering of the world can lead to feelings of doubt, despair and impotence. There is profound and seemingly unlimited suffering, sadness and cruelty in the world, and it is easy to be overwhelmed. It is also easy to slip from compassion into pity. But pity, though often equated with compassion, in fact undermines it by creating a power imbalance between donor and receiver. The essence of compassion is sharing one's heart - "suffering with" - while pity elevates one at the expense of the other and turns the receiver into an object of need or condescension.
The antidote to despair is of course hope, which is an inextricable component of compassion, and possibly the single most important ingredient for changing the world. Hope allows us to see the inspiring and nurturing forces in the world as well as the oppressive and destructive forces. It gives us the energy we need to keep going and the sustenance to be continually renewed. (For a sustained infusion of hope, we recommend Paul Rogat Loeb's book The Impossible Will Take a Little While - a stirring collection of essays that reminds us that ordinary people can change the world.)
The antidote to pity is to appreciate and nurture people's gifts. When we pity another person we see only their deficiencies. When we open our eyes to their gifts, we begin to see beyond what they lack to what they have, and to recognize and value their contributions. Too many of our social programs and services operate from a "needs-based" approach that is grounded in pity. A more genuinely compassionate approach is one that recognizes and mobilizes people's capacities, skills and gifts. This perspective is embodied in John McKnight's Asset Based Community Development Institute. McKnight and his colleagues have demonstrated that focusing on assets, not needs, is the key to revitalizing communities, and that healthy communities are those in which "everyone understands that everybody has a gift and everybody gives it."
In the final analysis, the heart of the matter is heart. Compassion is the language of the heart. A compassionate heart does not depend on education. It does not depend on religious, political or philosophical persuasion. It does depend on treating our potential for compassion very gently and tapping into this powerful flow of energy. Our happiness - and the well-being of our communities - depends on it.
The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, "What are you going through?"
Books of interest:
The Dalai Lama has written many books on compassion, including:
The Compassionate Life (2003)
An Open Heart (2002)
The Heart of Compassion (2002)
The Power of Compassion (2001)
Compassion in Action, by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush
Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier
Roots of Empathy
An innovative classroom-based parenting program that aims to reduce aggression by fostering empathy and emotional literacy.
The Nouwen Society
An organization established to foster the spirituality of solitude, community and compassion embodied in the life and teaching of Henri Nouwen.
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