What is compassion really? We talk about it a lot.

Compassion for those caught up in the Haiti earthquake.

Compassion for the homeless.

Compassion for the abused and disenfranchised.

Compassion for the suffering of others.

But what do we really mean by it? Is it a synonym for sympathy? For empathy? For something else entirely?

I can’t help myself. I need my OED.

Interestingly, the most extensive English-language dictionary has relatively little to say on this word. (For the OED, this means less than a full column’s worth of meanings.)

The first two definitions are particularly interesting to me.

1. Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling.

2. The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succor.

Interestingly, there’s a note accompanying definition #2.

(The compassion of sense 1 was between equals or fellow-sufferers; this is shown toward a person in distress by one who is free from it, who is, in this respect, his superior.)

Why I’m confused.

This word compassion comes from Latin (which of course has some Greek roots, but I’m trying hard not to get carried away by my geeky love of words). Depending upon your source, it means com (together with) + pati (to suffer) or passus (which is directly related to the English word “patient”  (one who suffers).

The inherent meaning of the structure of the word implies a condition in which the one who has compassion is participating in the suffering in some way, shape or form. Deeper than empathy, compassion isn’t just a feeling; it’s related to a shared suffering that results in action of one sort or another.

Why has the meaning morphed to include the outsider’s view of the OED’s definition #2? This isn’t a recent thing; the oldest source the OED cites for definition #2 comes from the 14th century, so this isn’t some modern growth of the word.

I Need Different Sources.

So I look to the sources from which many of our concepts of compassion come: faith traditions.

Whether you know it or not, compassion is one of the few things that all of the world’s major religions seems to agree on.

Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and many others cite compassion as a root of faith.

Muslims, for example, are supposed to start their day – as well as all significant actions that take place each day – by invoking God the Merciful and Compassionate (Bism-i-llah a-Rahman-i-Rahim). And part of the point of Ramadan (a month-long observance in which the devout fast from sunup to sundown each day) is to suffer with those who go without on a regular basis, building tangible compassion for them.

For those of the Hindu tradition, compassion is one of the three central virtues.

For Christians, the most common example is likely the parable of the Good Samaritan. I find it interesting that the dominant example of compassion in the Christian tradition essentially involves definition #2.

Of course – and not surprisingly – Martin Luther King Jr. took the Good Samaritan and make it more.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

The Jews and the Buddhists.

Both the Jewish tradition and the Buddhist tradition embrace the idea of compassion from the perspective of the word’s etymological meaning.

A suffering with that leads one to action.

I am told that at the beginning of instruction in Buddhism, many new followers are overflowing with the desire to show compassion to the world. That burning desire to love the world into a different state of being. And yet, they are taught, the most difficult first lesson of compassion is learning to have it for yourself. For, if you do not have compassion for yourself, you cannot have it for another.

In the mystical Kabbalah tradition of Judiasm, a similar theme is stated:

Kindness gives to another. Compassion knows no other.

And that’s the root of it. At least for me it is.

Compassion and love and all of the other virtues we chase in our over-stimulated world of chaos, begin with the person in the mirror.


The Point.

The trigger for this little exploration of compassion (and I know, I’ve not even scratched the surface) was hearing the word bandied about so much by those moved by the earthquake in Haiti. It typically felt to me as if those calling for a compassionate response were more often actually asking for sympathy accompanied by a donation.

Don’t misunderstand, the people of Haiti need our help. They need every penny than can be poured into their country. But they need that on all of the other days of the year in which there was no earthquake.

So I’m trying to sort through just what it means to be compassionate. And in all my reading it kept coming back to the way in which I approach myself. If I cannot and do not show compassion to myself, I can’t be terribly effective in showing it to others. It seems like it would be like trying to show someone how to tie their shoes when you don’t know how to tie your own.

I know that I’ve ended up in this post with more questions than answers. But I think that’s okay. As Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas is reputed to have said, “I would rather have compassion than know the meaning of it.”

That’s where I’m coming out right now.

But I’d really like to hear from all of you. What is compassion from where you sit in the universe? What isn’t it? How does one embrace compassion in real and tangible ways?

The comment box is below. Please make use of it.

One Response to Compassion
  1. Gina
    January 31, 2010 | 15:20

    Wow. So many wonderful thoughts, explorations, resources.

    Compassion, to me, begins with non-judgment. Or ends with it. Not sure.

    But it is the deep recognition that no matter what a person’s actions or situations appear to suggest, we are all in the same boat. We are all of the same cloth, and all having a human experience (aka: suffering.)

    And as I learned at the Oneness Weekend I attended a few weeks ago, at the heart of everything we do, all we really want and need is to love and be loved. When we recognize and behave toward others with the knowing that all of our actions stem from that, including our own, then we have compassion.
    .-= Gina´s last blog ..Letters to a Young Therapist =-.

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