Compassion:  The Sixth Most Important Virtue for a Good Life

Compassion is number six of my seven essential virtues for leading a happy and successful life.  Every Saturday I start my day with the following prayer:

  • Help me to be strong and kind in the face of adversity, attacks or injustice perceived and help me to always be Compassionate in dealing with others.

what is compassionCompassion is the most important of the seven virtues.  Compassion is just one stroke short of love.  Compassion leads to love but it takes some doing to get there.  The journey involves a number of steps each predicated on a trait or behavior that is uniquely human.  In this blog, I want to describe the journey to compassion and beyond to love.   Each step of the journey is a commitment to humanity.  If you do not care about others, you will not be interested in the journey.  Compassion is the opposite of narcissism.   A narcissist loves them-self.  A person with compassion loves others.  With a narcissist, it is “all about me.”  With a compassionate person, it is “all about them.”

5aHomeless-Corbis_435_290The journey starts with sympathy.  We think of sympathy as “feeling sorry for someone.”  It is the ability to have feelings for another person.  We see another person who looks hungry or unhappy or ill and we feel some sense of remorse or regret for the other person.  We might be distressed for them or we might simply be glad that we are not in their shoes.  A part of us hurts or aches for the other person, but we do not identify with them on a deeper level.  Our sorrow goes no further than to perhaps wonder what had befallen them to bring such misery.

“Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to them.”

compassion two childrenOur next step in our journey to compassion takes understanding.  We need to try to understand others and to put ourselves in their shoes.  We must avoid separation and thinking that we are so different from others.  We must avoid judging others.  When you couple understanding with sympathy, you have taken the next step.  You have now arrived at empathy.  To have empathy for others, is to combine sympathy and understanding.  You are sorry for those who are less well-off then you are, but you do not separate yourself from them and instead you seek to find the common ground that links you to the other person.  Sympathy involves the heart.  Empathy involves both the heart and the mind.

“I always think that if you look at anyone in detail, you will have empathy for them because you recognize them as a human being, no matter what they’ve done.” — Andrea Arnold

By the way, not everyone thinks empathy is a good thing.  Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, argues that empathy is a bad thing—that it makes the world worse. While we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion he says it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.  He blames empathy for war and many other social injustices.  You can see his argument for his case against empathy at:  “Against Empathy.”   This is a short 3 minute video where Bloom makes his case.  I personally think his case is fraught with logical fallacies and unproven assumptions.  However, I suppose the fact that he is a Yale professor will sway many people.   

we must actThe next step in our journey is action.  All of the empathy in the world will not make a difference if we do not take action.  Empathy + Action = Compassion.  Compassion is the way we make a difference to others.  Jesus said “Feed my sheep.”  He did not say to just take pity on them or to simply have empathy for them.  Empathy by itself does not clothe the poor, feed the hungry or help the weak.  We must make action and doing a part of our empathy for others.  This is true compassion.

africanamericanwomenAs I said before, compassion is the opposite of narcissism.  Compassion is about what you can do and will do and are doing for others.  There are many stories of compassion.  Hollywood, novelists, ministers and pastors of all stripes will tell us story after story of compassion.  We hear these stories and are touched.  We sympathize and empathize with the victims in these stories.  But are we moved to take action?  Unless we take action to help others, we can never get to true compassion or love.  But love goes beyond compassion.  Love entails pro-active measures to care for others.

Compassion + Pro-Action = Love

Compassion can involve two types of action.  It can entail reaction or pro-action.  Compassion that is reactive takes place when you see a need and do something about it.  However, there is still a final step in the journey.  Love is our ultimate destination. When you love others, you do not wait to be asked or wait until the need is apparent.  When you love, you are pro-active.  You reach out before you are asked.  You seek for those that need help and you do not simply wait for them to arrive or show up on your door step.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” — John 15:13

I can recall a situation where I once had a friend in need.  I called Mike up and asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said “No, he was ok.”  A thought I was doing a very fine thing by being pro-active and asking if Mike needed any help.  A short time late, I found that another friend (Bob) had gone over and actually rendered some assistance to Mike.  I asked Bob how this came about as I noted that I had called Mike and he said he did not need any help.  Bob replied: “Yeah, he told me the same thing, but I did not believe him.  Mike will never ask for help.”

acts of loveBob’s actions made a great impact on me, since I had seldom gone further in my life than either waiting to be asked for help or sometimes asking others if they needed help.  It would never have occurred to me to just show up and help.  Perhaps, you might think as I had that simply showing up and helping someone is going too far.  However, think about yourself.  Would you really ask others for help?  I know I probably would not.  Pitching in to help when not asked may not always be warranted but I now see it as something worth endeavoring to do more often than not.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I did not include love as one of my several greatest virtues.  This was no accident.  Many writers have described love much more adequately than I have.  The Greeks over two thousand years ago described four types of love.  Love has been the subject of more novels, poems and songs than there are stars in the sky.  We are constantly bombarded by the use of the word love.  How many times have you been told “I love you” by some relative or perhaps friend who seldom goes any further than their admission of love for you?

I am skeptical of love for two reasons.  First, I am still not sure I know what it is.  Second, I hear the word used so often that I doubt anyone else really knows what it is either.  If everyone in our world who was professing love really loved, I cannot believe we would have the wars and violence and cruelty that we see every day on the TV and in the papers.  I think “true love” probably exists but I do think it is practical for my daily journey through life.  It is one of those things that like happiness we probably do not seek but it finds us.

free sandwiches for the homelessI think compassion is a much more useful and practical virtue for my life.  I can deal with compassion and I can be more compassionate if I really aspire to.  I am not sure I can be more loving.  I have a hard time “loving” others whom I dislike or who do unkind things to people I do like.  I more often “love” others who think and act like I do.  I may be taking the easy way out, but if I can be more compassionate to others and if someday I am thought of as a compassionate person, this will be enough for me.  If you are further along in your journey through life, then you should consider including love as one of your “most” important virtues.  No one will be a worse person for it.  For me today, compassion for others is enough of an effort.

Time for Questions:

 Are you a compassionate person?  Do you have compassion for strangers as well as friends and relatives?  Can you be compassionate towards people of different ethnicity, philosophies, religions and political ideologies?  What makes you a compassionate person?

Life is just beginning.

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you.  If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”  ― Barack Obama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. johnpersico
    Apr 10, 2016 @ 18:18:22

    It’s interesting to think of love on a continuum. It’s more the Biblical use of love–to love one another would not be romantic love. And it would really take work, not just feeling. If love is proactive compassion, then you need to work at learning what needs exist to be proactively involved. I think of my friend Nora and the years she spent as a missionary in South Africa caring for orphans with AIDS. That is real love.

    Reply

  2. johnpersico
    Apr 10, 2016 @ 20:35:34

    I would have to agree, Nora went beyond compassion to love.

    Reply

  3. Jeanine
    Apr 15, 2016 @ 19:09:47

    I enjoyed your blog very much. It made me consider the possibility that I may not be doing enough by simply having compassion. The extra step it takes to act when possible is also very important. Thank you for another thought provoking message.

    Reply

  4. johnpersico
    Apr 15, 2016 @ 19:26:50

    I thought the same thing when I wrote this. Am I doing enough or just paying lip service? Thanks for your thoughts Jeanine.

    Reply

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