Someone wrote in with a comment that almost made me clap:
“You use the word compassion sometimes. I like the *idea* of compassion, but I don’t know, it irritates me. I’m not saying I’m not compassionate, I think I am. I just hear it used by a lot of people I don’t like. Not you, other people. Fluffy people who have all the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I hate that word but I still think it’s a good thing, whatever it is exactly…”
I added capital letters and removed an LOL or two, but he captured my thoughts exactly.
I avoid it too because it has undeserved connotations about sissiness and self-importance. But I guess I have let the C-word slip a few times, sorry.
Compassion, as a word, hasn’t really found a widely-accepted role in our culture. Not everyone is comfortable with it. I think part of its problem is that it contains the dubious word “passion.” Part of the ick-quality of this word comes from its shameless overuse in marketing this last decade (along with fellow bad words “dreams” and “excellence”) of everything from DeBeers diamonds to mortgage brokers.
I think it might help to clarify that the “passion” part of compassion actually refers to suffering, not to enthusiasm for watercolors or for the Allman Brothers Band. Think The Passion of the Christ, not “I have a passion for 1960s girl groups.” The “com” part refers to “with another.”
Politicians conspicuously avoid it, because it sounds like they support a welfare state. Too risky to bust out the C-word in a forum where you’re pandering for the widest and shallowest approval possible. Too many people don’t know what it means. The C-word is a bad word outside the Green Party.
Compassion is associated with bleeding heart socialists, self-help junkies, hippies who sob over dead trees, pasty-faced emos and any other people who suffer from throes of uncontrollable sympathy — even the misguided commies who want to give away health care! (Can you imagine?! Helping people without demanding their money! Some people are sick.)
The C-word has been relegated to these weak and senseless groups, when really it’s something that everyone would be in favor of it if they knew what it was and understood what its implications are.
It has a murky definition. I looked up a few commercial ones and they’re no good:
Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Makes me think the different dictionaries just copy each other, and haven’t had staff writers since Google came out. I don’t know how to know whether my awareness is Deep enough for Webster’s approval.
Maybe the dictionary people are the authorities here, but if they are then I have to come up with a different C-word, because what I think of as compassion is a little more specific than that. In my mind:
Compassion is a voluntary sensitivity to the internal experience of another.
Just like you are having a real internal experience whenever you’re embarassed, bleeding, overworked, marginalized or afraid, so are other people. They’re having them all the time, they’re just as real and intense as yours, and your presence and actions affect the flavor and quality of the experience others have.
To be compassionate is to act with a conscious understanding that others have an internal experience too. This is not the same as simply being kind, which can have all sorts of motivations that have only to do with your own experience. It’s also not the same as sympathy — simply suffering over another’s suffering — which generally keeps you preoccupied with your experience, now that it sucks too.
Yes, like it or not, everywhere you go, people are having intense internal experiences and your actions are always a part of it, or always have the potential to be a part of it. If you and I are sharing a booth at a diner, and I pick my nose while you’re trying to eat pea soup, I am affecting your current experience somewhat. I may even be dominating it, all with my simple gesture.
I’m not necessarily trying to do anything to your internal experience, I’m trying to do something to my nose, but the things I do invariably affect other people whether I’m aware of that or not.
It’s entirely possible to spend most of our lives heeding social conventions, apologizing whenever appropriate, and being otherwise courteous, without actually understanding the reality that others also have these ongoing, live, private experiences.
We’re all normally quite preoccupied with our own, and if you and I do happen to have coffee one day and I don’t pick my nose while you’re talking to me, it may not have anything whatsoever to do with my consideration for your experience. I may just not want you to think I’m someone who would do that, which has everything to do with my sensitivity to my own internal experience, and represents no evidence of my sensitivity to yours.
But once that fact really clicks in you — that other people are constantly having internal experiences which are no different than the one you’ve been having since birth — then the cat’s out of the bag. You can no longer deny that you must give consideration to that whenever you act, unless you’re planning on playing the sociopath angle for the rest of your life.
This is the foundation for real morality. When you smash your finger with a hammer, the pain is absolutely real, immediate and inescapable. When someone else does it, it’s the same thing. The same thing. It’s that awful, that painful. This truth is so simple, but we don’t necessarily comprehend that on an emotional level.
We also can’t pretend this only applies to humans. Your dog is having an internal experience every time you pet him, feed him, take him for a walk, or hit him. When I tell people I avoid animal products, if I don’t get a negative response, it’s often something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s so caring of you [to not eat that hot dog out of principle.] You must really love animals.”
I’ve always liked animals, but I don’t think I love them any more than the typical non-vegan. Deciding I won’t kill or exploit them for my pleasure doesn’t come from any special love, it’s just the most basic level of respect to give to another being whom I know is having a thoroughly real experience. There are plenty of people who love animals more than I ever will, who do not make this connection.
So what compassion amounts to is making yourself sensitive to the joy and suffering of others, and giving weight to that joy and suffering. Even if it’s not as much weight as you give your own, if you are compassionate then it is real and meaningful. To you.
But it’s voluntary, right?
“Why bother?” is not a bad question. The only experience you actually have is your own, so why not devote your energies solely to improving your experience, with no active concern for the internal experiences of others?
The short answer is that compassion is an effective way to make a better experience for yourself, if that’s your only real concern. I find I’m way more prone to unpleasant experiences like anger and frustration when I’ve drifted into that recurring ignorance of the fact that other people are constantly having a parallel (but not lesser) experience.
It also explains a lot of bad behavior. When people are having awful experiences, they’ll do anything to get out of it or improve it, including things that make awful experiences for others. I know that I’m most reckless with others when I’m suffering. It doesn’t excuse it but it explains it. It makes my expectations more reasonable and the world seem more understandable.
The long answer depends what kind of society you want to live in. If you like the idea of people around you acting with earnest consideration for your internal experiences, then the C-word should be prominent in your life, because that’s exactly what it is.
That’s what almost all complaints about society amount to: they don’t think of others, they don’t think of me. Virtually all of society’s problems stem from an absence of this voluntary sensitivity. Everything from the war in Afghanistan to the empty ice cube trays in the staff room freezer.
Clearly it’s a superior way to operate, and I’m sure it’ll catch on, eventually becoming fashionable among your friends and family, your employer and colleagues, corporate policymakers, elected officials, and the people who make the commercials louder than the show.
So please help us make the C-word cooler than it is right now.
Photo by Marfis