Compassion – More Than A Feeling


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Compassion is not primarily a feeling. It is also an act.

On Christmas eve we spent the day at two city dumps near our home in Central Mexico. We were with a group of volunteers distributing loads of much needed supplies to over 200 people who survive by sifting through the garbage to find plastic, glass, and paper to  sell to recyclers. It was challenging because we were amidst hills of garbage and stench but the people were wonderful–grateful, funny, warm.

But was this act  measurable with our feelings?

I felt everything from fascination and curiosity (where do these folks come from and how do they survive like this?) to gratitude for the level of privilege in our lives. But did I feel compassionate? I don’t really know.

But here is my take on compassion as both a feeling as well as an act.

1. Compassion produces a sense of solidarity with others.

Interestingly, in the act of sharing, any apparent divisions or imagined difficulties in our ability to connect quickly disappeared. Compassion is about seeing the world as best as we can through the prism of another person’s experience. In fact, there is no boundary between us and the other but a solidarity with their suffering.

2. Compassion does not produce a feeling of superiority like pity does.

When we go through tough times we become skilled at distinguishing between pity and compassion. And let’ face it, there is a big difference both in the person’s attitude as well as in their actions.

The pity refrain is an ego-driven “I, I, I”.  Even though we may be responding to the distress of another person the primary focus in pity is on our own feelings and possibly also on our sense of superiority.

As we contrast our world with the other who is suffering we say things like, I feel so lucky or blessed” “There, but for the grace of god go I True compassion then is a relatively selfless act primarily focussed on the world of the other.

3. Many people experience compassion on the margins of life.

Workers in refugee camps, hospice volunteers, nurses in the ICU, participants in a 12-Step addiction program, all have a heightened possibility of becoming compassionate to some degree or another. Not that one cannot experience compassion with a successful Wall Street Broker who is going through a hard time but,

Where ego reigns there is less likely to be a compassionate response.


How can people going through hardship be our teachers about compassion?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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