The Dalai Lama has written a whole book on compassion, which I believe I read over 10 years ago. I like his quote as the true feeling of compassion for others will in fact benefit them and yourself. In this post I want to make a case for adopting compassion, and how it is one of the most important virtues in life.
The Merriam Webster definition:
: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
I like this very brief yet powerful definition of compassion. Breaking it down a compassionate person has sympathetic consciousness for others distress and a desires to do something about it. You might also phrase it as a sympathetic awareness for the distress that others are experiencing. There are a number of synonyms for sympathy, but you also might phrase this as a compassionate person has a caring awareness of the suffering of others and wants to alleviate it.
Most of us can be compassionate when it comes to family members, friends, and often with people that think like us, but true compassion is not just for those you love or agree with. True compassion, even for those we don’t agree with means we have expanded our world view to all sentient beings. To be compassionate is a virtue, an unselfish expression of your better self. When your first reaction to things you do not agree with is negative, you are being judgmental, which is one of the biggest impediments to compassion. This propensity to judge others often comes from an inflated ego. Your thoughts may include viewing others as wrong, stupid, uninformed, unintelligent, and of course viewing yourself as better than everyone else or least those you judge.
If you recognize suffering in others and actually decide you want to do something about it, you are practicing compassion. In our very imperfect world there are many opportunities to be compassionate. Some examples may include:
- Chronic conditions (cancer, heart disease, etc.)
- Disease (pandemics)
- Mental illness
- War such as Russia’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine
- Racisim and oppressing people based on sexual preference
There are no shortages of pain and suffering in our world, some of this may be very close to home for you. If you are a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, or Muslim you most likely have been taught compassion as part your doctrine or religion. Of course practicing compassion is not limited to a philosophy or religion, as an agnostic you may also be as compelled as anyone else to feel the pain and suffering that surrounds us and want to act. One could make the case that compassion is a universal virtue.
If you think you are a compassionate person, then you may realize the difference between empathy and compassion is about the action or lack of it. You can empathize with the plight of others, but if you do nothing about it you are not compassionate. This isn’t inherently bad and maybe it is a step in the right direction. The fact that you have empathy for others is better than as the quote above states you are just an observer. For most of us our heart is in the right place, but we don’t take that next step because we are so wrapped up in our own troubles, that we can’t take the time to act on the empathy we feel. Maybe we just don’t know how to help.
One of the things we have seen over the past couple of decades in the United States is that Americans are less inclined as in the past to belong to a religious entity like a church. You might ask why does this matter? Well in the past the church was a place that reinforced compassion as a virtue and maybe more importantly provided avenues to practice it by supporting numerous charities and causes. From the article on the web “America is losing its Religion” some of the statistics are shocking:
By the numbers: A Gallup poll released last week found just 47% of Americans reported belonging to a house of worship, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% as recently as 1999.
- The shift away from organized religion is a 21st century phenomenon. U.S. religious membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937, and stayed above 70% for the next six decades.
Context: The decline in membership is primarily driven by a sharp rise in the “nones” — Americans who express no religious preference.
- The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion rose from 8% between 1998 and 2000 to 21% over the past three years, while the percentage of nones who do not belong to a house of worship has risen as well.
If religion as we know it continues to decline over the next couple of decades, what will replace it? Now you may be agnostic and feel that religion is unnecessary, but surely there will be a void of some sort, and those religious institutions that survive will have less to work with in terms of acting upon their compassion. The need for our society to practice compassion is not decreasing, in fact it is most certainly increasing. The vast income and wealth inequality has only forced more of our world wide population into poverty and often into homelessness.
If you have an awareness of all the suffering in this world and want to act upon it look at your own community. I don’t have all the answers, but there are food banks, homeless shelters, and other charitable organizations that my provide an avenue for your compassion. I feel that if we don’t act things are going to get progressively worse.