Compassion and its meaning

What does it mean to be compassionate?

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behaviour often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

Compassion is neither empathy nor sympathy but requires both. Empathy is responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy is a feeling of regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion means giving to people, and that may not be always the right thing to do. It may leave them happy for a short time but usually leaves them without the motivation to take on challenges and make changes. People often want what is not good for them like the child who wants to play outside instead of doing homework, the gambler who wants to bet what he cannot afford, the alcoholic who wants to drink, or the drug addict who want to get a drugs fix.

If our aim is to help others surmount a problem we must apply our own judgment to the actions we are asked to take on their behalf.  Compassion without wisdom is dangerous and can do more harm than good. Acting compassionately may often be inconvenient, but if you find yourself sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way, you have allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less. In fact, sometimes you may care about another person’s happiness but find that other person not only beyond your help but a serious risk to your happiness. In such cases, the person toward whom you must turn your compassion is yourself.

Many believe having compassion requires you to adopt a supportive, non-violent attitude and express only loving caring and kindness at all times. Though compassion may have to be all those things to be effective, compassion must sometimes also be harsh, tough, and truthful as to the real situation. True compassion expects no reward or recognition. If you want thanks it means you risk shifting your focus from increasing the happiness of others to the gratification of your own ego, which then risks behaviour that harms instead of help. There is no requirement that you like anyone in order to be a compassionate person. You can actively dislike someone towards whom you feel great compassion. Being compassionate may mean thinking generously about a person despite their flaws, but it does not mean pretending those flaws don’t exist. You don’t have to pretend that people don’t upset you, nor do you have to open yourself up to establishing a personal relationship with people you try to help.  Genuinely wish that this person experiences something positive or healing. Even though it may be hard, focus your thoughts and feelings on giving a gift of mercy or compassion. Be consciously aware of the thoughts, feelings, and physical responses you have as you cultivate compassion, kindness, and mercy for a person.

Compassionate people are givers who never expect anything in return. They are normally referred to as kind-hearted people who have a belief that what you give to the universe is what you get in return. This is often referred to as karma.


Peg Hanafin, MSc. s 17/5/2018