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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends and Friendship: Part 2:

I confess I ended a number of friendships this past year.  I decided to simply “let go” of people who don’t call me or who do not seem to have any interest in whether I am alive or dead.  I can’t say this task was easy.  I have misgivings about when and how I have approached the effort.  My solution has been to simply not call or contact others unless they contact me.  I have for many years felt like I was the one doing most of the work in several “friendships.”  I am not sure whether it is the “parsimony” of old age (i.e., only so much time left on this earth) or simply laziness.  Somehow though, I thought: “Well, if they want to see me, they can call me for a change.”  Maybe it simply means that I do not care about friendship enough to invest the work they need.  I even had misgivings over my “best friend.”   I began to feel that we had drifted apart over the years and no longer had the basis for a friendship.

In Friends and Friendship Part 1, I described some basic theories of friendships and went back to the ideas of Aristotle to help describe what friendship is and the types of friendship possible.  I outlined my theory on the importance of intimacy to friendship.  Here in Part 2, I want to identify ten behaviors that I think are necessary for a true friendship.  I am not sure ALL of them are necessary (You may have good friends without all ten being present) but I do think most of them are essential for a friendship.  I would like to describe each behavior and why it is important and its role in helping to create a true friendship.  I think friendships take time and effort.  In this respect, I don’t think friendships are any different than a good marriage.  You can’t take your partner for granted and ignore them day after day and expect your marriage to last.  I believe the same is true for friends.

As you read my friendship behaviors, please remember that I am not advocating that anyone take their friendships lightly or that you simply jettison friends who do not meet my criteria. I am simply saying that if you want to have good friends there are some behaviors that are necessary to create, maintain and continue a friendship.  Given the need to invest time and effort to keep good friendships, the idea of 2,000 or even 200 Facebook “Friends” is ludicrous.  If you can maintain even one good friendship in your life, I would consider you lucky.

If the time comes and you decide to take stock of your friendships, please remember one thing:  You do not have to “let go” of old friends.  You can rejuvenate or refresh your friendships by once again becoming a friend.  If your efforts are not reciprocated over time (and not necessarily fifty-fifty) you might want to reevaluate just who you should spend your time and energy with.  This might sound “cold and calculating” but if you have found a better solution please send me an email or drop a comment in the box.   I would sincerely like to keep as many friends as I can and if there is a way to do it without time and effort; I have not yet found it.

1. Disagree respectfully:

I cannot imagine a friendship where we agree on everything 100 percent of the time.  However, I also cannot imagine a friend who would insult me, disrespect me or try to make me look foolish.  I would not call that a friend.  I expect my friends to listen to my ideas and even if they do not agree, to at least try to understand where I am coming from and not deliberately try to denigrate or diminish my theories or opinions.   I have no problem with friends presenting facts or logical arguments against said opinions, but I don’t believe a friendship can be based on disrespect unless it can be done in a caring manner which is sometimes possible but usually very difficult to effect.

2. Overcome anger:

I have often noticed that real friendships seem to start “after” friends get angry with each other.  Perhaps, more than the anger signaling the start of true friendship is the process by which you are able to overcome the anger with your friend.   If we can’t confront the anger with another, it is unlikely that we will become good friends.  I remember once going to a marriage seminar and they said there were three things you needed for a good marriage:   1. A communications process.   2.  A fight-fair process.  3.  A realistic budget.   I was very intrigued by the fight-fair process. What this entails is the ability to communicate with your spouse or friend about things that make you angry or disappoint you.  It goes beyond daily communication to encompass “extra-ordinary” situations that arise when something does not go as we expect it to.  For many of us, this is a daily event.  If you can’t communicate with and overcome your anger with another person, you probably do not have a true friendship.

3. Share common interests:

Perhaps, you met your friends at Curves or work or playing bingo.  We meet people all over and I allow that ninety five percent of the people we meet are simply acquaintances.  They never become true friends because they never go beyond sharing common interests.  Nevertheless, the sharing of common interests helps create a bond that is fundamental to a good friendship.  It is indeed possible to stay good friends with someone long after the initial interests have disappeared simply on the basis of the shared history that you now have with that individual.  For instance, you might have been on a trip together or been in the service together.  These shared memories act as the cement to continue to provide a sense of common interests.   At some point however, these former interests become faded and need to be replaced by new and more salient experiences that can be shared together.  Without such interests as a foundation, I have seen many former friendships simply fade away.

4. Help each other when in need:

There is perhaps no truer saying that “A friend in need is a friend in deed.”  The power of the feelings that are manifested towards someone coming to our aid in time of need is beyond comparison to any other single aspect of friendship.  I remember a good friend of mine who once told me during my divorce: “The hell with your ex-wife, I am here for you.”  I will never forget how grateful I felt towards him for the fact that he was willing to unequivocally provide me with emotional support when I needed it.  Friends may help you in many ways, but perhaps no help goes further than the emotional support that we provide towards friends when they need it.

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

5. Don’t expect your friends to be perfect:

This is a simple but profound truth:  None of us are perfect.  If you constantly find fault with others, chances are you will not have many or even any friends.  It is not always easy to accept the faults in others.  For instance, I disagree with one of my friends over some of the people whom he calls friends.  I would not have a racist or a bigot as a friend.  I am willing to overlook many warts and blemishes in my friendships but I draw the line at liking or even tolerating people who hurt or pick on others.  Perhaps I should be more charitable.  I admit, I write off many potential friendships because I will not tolerate hateful attitudes towards others.  Nevertheless, I do recognize that the more that you can handle and deal with the imperfections in others, the more friendships you will potentially have.

6. Care about each other:

This might be the single most important bond for a good friendship.  Do you really care about what happens to the other person?  Are you willing to go out of your way to take an interest in their needs and lives?   Caring can take many forms and might be attending a funeral at one of their relatives or driving your friend to the hospital or giving them a ride to the airport.  A few years ago, I remember a friend who told me that whenever any of his friends were in need, he simply showed up with helping hand, or a pie or a shoulder to cry on.  He said that he did not ask the common question “How can I help you?”  He simply went ahead and tried to help without being asked or given permission.  His initiative seemed to me more powerful than the common refrain “Let me know if I can be of help.”  I would be much more grateful towards the friend that simply showed up rather than waiting to be asked.

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”
Marlene Dietrich

7. Occasionally reach out to each other:

I believe it is important for friends to have some form of regular contact with each other.  I cannot understand or believe that a good friendship can endure without some form of mutual interdependence.  Whether, you come by for dinner, attend a movie together, take a trip together or simply call or even email your friends, it seems (to me anyway) that friendships need some form of regular lubrication that mutual contact provides.

I have said that Facebook friends are generally not true friendships. They do however; provide regular contact between “potential” friends and people who you truly call good friends.  The simple “like” button provides a very powerful and instant means of letting others know that you appreciate, admire or support something they are engaged in.  I have given many likes and received many likes on Facebook and I always feel closer to those individuals who take the time to “like” or note some issue that I care about.  Liking is not a very big effort but it forms that sense of mutual contact that I think is the lubricant for a good friendship.

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

8. Apologize when you hurt the other person:

Good friends do not deliberately hurt each other.  However, hurts both physical and emotional will often be inflicted.  I cannot tell you how many times I have bumped into Karen, stepped on her toes, or unintentionally inflicted some pain on her while we were together.  Fortunately, it was nothing ever very serious.   More serious to our relationship, has been the emotional pain and hurts that I have too often inflicted on her.   Some of them were intentional, some were not.   None were ever deserved though.   At such times, I think it is critical and essential to apologize to the other person.  Whether or not it was intentional is not the point.  The point is that you have hurt the other person and if you truly care about them, you want to know how you can help alleviate the pain.

A number of years ago, I was on the Oprah Winfrey show. The subject was apologies.  The expert that Oprah had on the show said that a true apology has three parts:  1. Saying: “I am sorry.”  2.  Listening to the hurt or pain you have caused the other person.  3.  Setting things right.  Part one, saying you are sorry is often the easy part.  However, many of us expect that as soon as we say we are sorry, the other person should forgot about it and get on with their lives.  Simply issuing an apology may not help the other person move on.  The difficult part is listening to the feelings, emotions and disappointments that your actions have led to.  People may all respond differently to different insults and individuals are responsible for their own feelings.  However, we all have feelings and in a good relationship you must care about the feelings of others.  Whether or not you have caused the feeling is a moot point.  Can you listen to and empathize with the pain that is in the other person?   This is often the only way; that they will be able to move beyond the pain and truly rejoin a relationship with you.

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
Bob Marley

9. Kidding or joking with each other:

Insulting a person or demeaning a person deliberately is a far cry from kidding someone or even “roasting” another person.  The first is done with malice and hatred, the latter is done with love and admiration.  I have never been really good at humor and my efforts to be funny have often backfired.  Good friends are friends that you can joke with.  Of course, everyone has their sensitive spots and tolerances and knowing these are important to a friendship.  The deeper the friendship, the more likely you will have a greater tolerance towards each other in terms of how much you can push the boundaries of joking and ridicule.  Most of us have learned that texting, emails and online communications do not lend themselves to humor and spoofing.  That is why an entire arsenal of symbols 🙂 has arisen to show the other person that “no malice” is intended in our comments.  In our face to face communications, our body language readily communicates towards our friends our intentions and whether or not they are playful or benign.  I cannot conceive of a real friend who I could not joke with or make fun of from time to time and of course vice verse.

10. Trust your friends:

The amount of trust you would put in a friend might be the single most obvious indicator of how strong that friendship was.   But what do we mean by the word Trust?  We often hear the phrase “trust me” used today.  What does it mean to trust though?  ASU Online defines trust as follows:

Trust is both an emotional and logical act. Emotionally, it is where you expose your vulnerabilities to people, but believing they will not take advantage of your openness. Logically, it is where you have assessed the probabilities of gain and loss, calculating expected utility based on hard performance data, and concluded that the person in question will behave in a predictable manner. In practice, trust is a bit of both. I trust you because I have experienced your trustworthiness and because I have faith in human nature.

A friend is someone who you can expose your vulnerabilities with.  In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed the importance of intimacy to a friendship.  When we are intimate with someone, we are more exposed and more vulnerable.  There is no escaping vulnerability in a good friendship.  If you want a strong friendship, you must be willing to trust the other person and that means you must be willing to be vulnerable.  The fewer secrets you have with your friends, the stronger your friendships will be. The issue of trust is paramount here because who but a fool would share secrets with someone they could not trust.  The Internet is full of ridiculous instances of people posting, texting or sharing secrets with others who it became glaringly evident they could not trust.  Some of us are more trusting than others, but I think that most good friendships grow in trust as our experiences teach us whether or not the other person can really be trusted.  Thus, the final hallmark of a good friendship is trust.

Time for Questions:

Are you happy with your friendships?  Do you have some good friends?  How do you define friendship?  How many of the ingredients of friendship that I have outlined do you share with your friends?  Which ingredients do you disagree with? Which ingredients do you think I have missed?  What do you need to do tomorrow to have better friendships?

Life is just beginning.

%d bloggers like this: