"Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
– Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön is an American woman (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City) who converted to Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-thirties after two failed marriages. She had been an elementary school teacher. She is now an ordained Buddhist nun. She is an author and teacher in the United States and Canada. Her books include The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places that Scare You, No Time to Lose, Practicing Peace in Times of War and most recently Taking the Leap - Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.
The dictionary defines compassion as the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, specifically suffering or sadness, but unlike mere empathy, the person has an active desire to give aid or reduce the other person's suffering. Mother Theresa would be a good practical example of this, because not only did she feel pity for the poor and sick in India, she did something to help them, and she lived in such a way that she was actually as poor as they were. A relationship between equals, indeed.
There are a number of synonyms for compassion: pity, commiseration, condolence, sympathy, and empathy, but each of them has a slightly different shade of meaning. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes to understand how they must feel or why they are acting as they do. It doesn't necessarily mean that the person who empathizes actually feels the same. Sympathy is similar, but it is a feeling that you can have for someone whose situation is obviously miserable, even though you have not experienced that situation for yourself. Pity implies tender, but sometimes contemptuous sorrow for someone who is in misery or distress. There is an element of feeling superior to the person that one pities. Commiseration is expressing your empathy in words. Condolence is similar, but a bit more formal, and generally offered to someone who has lost a loved one to death.
I think Pema really hit the nail on the head when she said that compassion is a relationship between equals. If you think about it, the most compassionate people are those who have experienced suffering for themselves, so they can recognize it in others. Most of us become more and more compassionate in our later years. We understand the emotional pain of a young person who has just gone through his or her first breakup because we have been in a relationship that ended. We identify with the anxiety of a person who has lost his or her job, because we have experienced the loss of a job and the resulting financial worries. We see ourselves in a parent whose child is very ill, a person whose aged parents are too old and infirm to care for themselves, a woman struggling to step up from the curb from the street to the sidewalk, obviously in pain, because we have had these same experiences, or similar ones, ourselves.
When I had cancer, the people who gave me the most support and comfort were those who had been diagnosed with cancer, themselves. When my beloved cat, Baby, died, the people who had lost a pet were right there to comfort me.
Interestingly enough, there are those who speak of having compassion for animals who are suffering. If compassion is a relationship of equals, can we really call it compassion when we feel moved to reduce an animal's suffering? We can if we consider ourselves equal to the animals in God's creation and recognize that they feel pain and fear, just as we do.
Sometimes, all we can do is be with them, give them a hug, and let them cry or talk it out. Sometimes there are really no words to say, and silence is the most comforting. Often, it is listening, rather than speaking. Just listening, without judgment, without advice, without telling them to stop crying.
Notice in all of these pictures, the two people are sitting or squatting down. Compassion is not something you do on the run. It's something you have to stop and make time for. It's a one-on-one activity. It requires proximity and human touch.
Think of all the tough times that you have been through. Who comforted you? Who listened to you? Who showed the most compassion? Then think of people that you know who are suffering in some way. How have your tough times helped you to feel compassion for the other person? How did your sense of compassion compel you to act?
|Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist nun|
You may not be able to solve another person's problem for them, but you can still be there. You can listen. You can give them a hug. You can offer to take the weight off their shoulders for a little while as they struggle to get through a miserable situation. In this way, you serve the Creator even as you serve others. :-)