Yesterday was Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and already the malls are prepared for Christmas, the season for giving. But, as always, the greatest gifts of all are not for sale and are free. It doesn’t cost anything to bring joy into the lives of others, for all they hope for are acceptance, recognition, understanding, patience, kindness, encouragement, a smile, a laugh, and an embrace. Aren’t these the very things you want? The best way to get these precious gifts is to give them away. In fact, the more you keep giving them away, the more they keep coming back to you.
The greatest gifts we can offer mankind are love and compassion. Although both words are similar and are often used interchangeably, there can be differences due to the different kinds of love (the love of God, romantic love, familial love, platonic love, lust, love of money). Of all the types of love, it is unconditional love that is most like compassion.
Compassion is the crown jewel of gifts and the subject of this article, so let’s start with a definition. The word comes from the roots “com,” which means “together” and “pati,” which means “to suffer.” So, the word origin means “to suffer together.” To further clarify, the modern meaning of compassion means “feeling the pain of others and wishing to do something to lessen it.” When we are compassionate, we are rewarded twice. First, when we lessen or remove the pain of others, we are also removing the pain we feel, making us feel better. Second, we experience exhilaration after every act of kindness, which is why we have the saying, “Virtue is its own reward.”
Although compassion is rightly thought of as a noble virtue, it is part of our nature. It is the core of what we are. We are naturally compassionate and our True Self is compassion itself. Infants are naturally loving and trusting. When they are near another infant that is crying because of pain or discomfort, they, too, start to cry. They cry because they feel the pain of the other baby and because there is nothing they can do to lessen its suffering.
The Chinese sage, Mencius also agreed that compassion is part of human nature, for he wrote, “If someone notices a child about to fall in a well, he will definitely feel alarmed and compassionate. This is not caused by the person’s desire to be rewarded by the child’s parents, nor is it caused by the desire to be applauded by the community, nor is it caused by the dread of guilty feelings.” , British poet William Blake also seems to agree, for he wrote, “Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?”
Yet, with all the cruelty you see in the world, you may find it hard to believe that compassion is part of our nature. If we were born naturally compassionate, what went wrong? What explains its absence today? Well, when we offer love or compassion, we are vulnerable, for our gift may be rejected, and that is painful. So, to prevent the pain of rejection, we just stop offering the gift. Our decision to stop being compassionate starts in childhood. For a clearer understanding, let’s look at an example.
Tommy’s kindergarten teacher explained to the class, “Sunday is Father’s Day. Let’s make a Father’s Day card for your daddy. Tonight you can give it to him before you go to bed.” Tommy was excited that he would have the opportunity to express his love to his father. But when he got home he decided that his card, which he created with crayons, wasn’t good enough. So after dinner, he went to his room and made a new card with water colors.
While Tommy was painting, his mom and dad had a hushed and tense discussion about the possibility of dad losing his job and the economic hardship that would cause. Mom tried to be encouraging, but she was secretly worried too. She told dad, “Go into the living room; settle down into your favorite chair and I’ll bring you a coffee.” Dad tried to relax with his coffee and evening newspaper, when along came Tommy. His cheerful voice was almost grating to his stressed out dad.
“Daddy! Daddy!” said Tommy, “Look at what I made for you!”
While still reading the newspaper, Dad reached out with his right hand, located his son, patted him on the head and said, “That’s wonderful, Tommy. I’m proud of you!”
“But you didn’t even look!” said Tommy, who then tried to push the still wet card into his father’s hand.
“Look at what you did,” dad angrily said, “because of you I’m messy. Look at my shirt sleeve; there’s paint all over it, even on my trousers! What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be painting now; you should be preparing for bed. Ask mommy to help you clean up your mess and go to bed!”
Tommy’s dream of expressing his love was shattered. In his eyes, his gift of love was rejected. As similar incidents happened again with mom and dad, the pain was too much to bear, so he stopped offering his love. You and I are Tommy. The circumstances might have been different, but we experienced rejection and built a wall of protection. A wall that keeps our love locked inside. And a wall that prevents the love of others from reaching us. We now reject their love because we were hurt too many times by parents who took their love away whenever we failed to obey their wishes.
But we are no longer five or six years old. We are adults. So we can tear down the wall we erected in childhood and release our love. But, generally speaking, it’s not something we can do instantaneously. It takes time, but with patience and effort, we can return to our natural state of compassion.
You’d like to try being more loving but don’t know how to start? If so, just follow this advice from Charles H. Burr, “Simply give others a bit of yourself: a thoughtful act, a helpful idea, a word of appreciation, a lift over a rough spot, a sense of understanding, a timely suggestion. By so doing, you take something out of your mind, garnished in the kindness out of your heart, putting it into the other fellow’s mind and heart.”
Compassion is not intellectual and more than a feeling; it’s a way of life. Here’s an example taken from something that happened to me. I stopped at a fast food outlet for a steak sandwich. Even though it was the lunch hour, I was the only customer. So as he prepared my sandwich, the 54-year-old Korean-Canadian owner and I chatted. He told me about his 83-year-old mother.
“Sometimes I take a shirt of mine, give it to her and say, ‘Mom, a button is missing. Can you fix my shirt?’”
“And when she says,” ‘Why can’t your wife do it?’, “I tell her my wife is too busy.”
“On another occasion I may give my mom a pair of my trousers and tell her to make the legs shorter. Of course my wife can do these things. But i want my mom to feel needed. I want her to have something to do. I want her to feel that she is helping me.”
What a wonderful story, I thought. Someone looking from the outside and not understanding the shopkeeper’s heart might have thought that he was imposing on his mother when he was actually being compassionate.
Besides in our family, where else can we practice living compassion? In the workplace! It’s an area in desperate need of compassion. We spend roughly a third of the day there, and if we are unhappy in the workplace, we are wasting time, losing opportunities, and robbing ourselves of happiness. Yet, the average workplace is like a battlefield. Workers get mired in office politics, bruised by abrasive coworkers, and stymied by uncooperative staff. Why is this? The solution is so simple, yet glaringly beyond the grasp of many people.
Take Tina, for example, she asks “How can I deal with rude coworkers, unsympathetic staff, lazy help, and egoistic bosses who only think of themselves?” Tina doesn’t realize that she is trapped by her own way of seeing things. Her perspective is incorrect; her attitude is poor, and her heart is closed.
Can you find the irony in her question? She doesn’t understand that the words she used (rude, unsympathetic, lazy, and egoistic) do not reflect reality, but merely reveal her own perception. The words she used are merely labels. And the only labels we can stick on others are the labels we already have.
This is an important point, so think about it for a moment. When Tina calls someone rude, Tina is rude! By calling someone rude, she merely means, “I don’t like her because she doesn’t do what I want her to do.” Does Tina expect and demand that everyone do exactly as she wishes?
And did Tina stop to think why she didn’t get the help she wanted? Was it because Tina acted rudely when she asked for help? Could it be the person she asked to help her had another job that needed to be done and simply didn’t have the time or know-how to help?
By complaining about her coworkers, can you see how Tina shows herself to be unsympathetic? Yet, that is what she calls them! Why can’t she get along with others? Is it because she is too lazy to help others and take the time to build relationships? Tina gripes about her boss only thinking about himself. But why is she complaining? Isn’t because she is only thinking about herself?
The solution to workplace problems is compassion. When we can feel the stress of our coworkers and want to lessen their burden, we will help them, win friends, and experience happiness. The world returns to us whatever we give to it. We can be like Tina, or we can open our hearts. Like Tina, we can ask, “How can I deal with the people in my office?” Or, we can be compassionate and ask, “How can I help the people in my office?”
In opening our hearts to others, we open the doors of opportunity, discovery, and power. Power does not mean power over people, but power because of people, for we cannot do much without the help of others.
When we are compassionate, we will be unscathed by troublesome relationships. Here’s an example. I formed a self-help group that all members, including myself, enjoyed. One day, however, a new member thought I was rude, unsympathetic, and egoistical. She was so upset by me that behind my back she emailed all members saying that I was unfit to run the group and everyone should quit the group unless they got a new leader.
The new member was surprised by two things. First, no one in the group agreed with her. Embarrassed, she stopped coming to the meetings. Second, after hearing about what happened, I called her and told her not to worry, she was welcome to return, and I was sure she would make a valuable contribution. So what do you supposed happened? She returned and made a valuable contribution. By the way, I did not know that at the time she was trying to stir up trouble, she was suffering from manic depression. So, there was a reason for her bizarre behavior. I am happy to say she has made remarkable improvements. When we are compassionate, we don’t label or judge others, And when we live compassionately, everyone wins.
Can a compassionate person act cruelly? Of course not, for compassion and cruelty are oxymorons. Yet, to some people, a compassionate act may appear as a cruel one. For example, Laura, a mature lady who lives alone received a call from her nephew. He was in his twenties and living in a Canadian Province that had a low employment rate. “Auntie,” he said, “I can’t get a decent job here. But there are plenty of opportunities where you are in Toronto. If I go there, can I stay with you until I get a job?”
“Sure, come on down.” said Laura compassionately.
However, once he arrived, Laura discovered he wasn’t looking for work at all. All he did was watch TV, play games, and eat junk food. Being compassionate, Laura was patient. But after two months she put her foot down. She packed her nephew’s belongings and put them in the car. Next, she told him they were going somewhere and to please get in the car. Laura then took him to a motel, and said, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t working out, so you’ll have to live on your own. I can help a little, so I’m paying the motel enough for you to stay here one month, if necessary. Also, here are a few extra dollars to help you with food. But don’t bother asking for anymore because I don’t have it. Sorry I can’t do more. I’ve done what I could and I wish you good luck.
There were tears in Laura’s eyes as she drove back home. She didn’t hear from her nephew until eight months later. When he called, he said, “Auntie, I’m back home now and have a job. Everything is fine. The reason I’m calling is to thank you for your help, especially for throwing me out and forcing me to survive on my own.
That’s exactly why Laura threw him out. Not because she couldn’t afford it, but because it would be cruel to make him dependent on her. She did the compassionate thing, which was to force him to become independent and free.
Remember when I said the only labels we can stick on others are those we already have? Well, that’s just another way of saying, we can only give away what we have. That being so, how can we be compassionate toward others if we are not compassionate to ourselves? So, before you even think about being compassionate, make sure you practice it on yourself.
Here’s a simple exercise you should practice every day. Spend five minutes alone, reflecting on what’s good about you. We spend too much time thinking about our faults, weaknesses, and limitations. It’s essential for a balanced and fruitful life to spend time thinking about your positive attributes. As you do so, you will be surprised to realize how nice you are, and you will get to love yourself. It is only then that you will be able to offer the gifts of love and compassion to others.
Here’s an excellent summary of what I’ve been trying to say, “Love is the characteristic that defines our relationships and dealings with others. If we spend our lives looking for offenses we will find them. Instead, resolve to see the irritations in life as bumps in the road to spiritual maturity. When we are clothed with love we learn to spotlight potential and strengths rather than problems. Love is the glue that holds us together and the oil that keeps us from rubbing each other the wrong way. You cannot change someone else but you can make a change in your own life.” (The Schwenkfeldian magazine, Winter, 2007)
Some readers may now be going through trying circumstances. They may feel the need for compassion more than the wish to be compassionate. Their feeling is understandable; after all, the greatest pain of all is to know no one cares or understands. But that also means that the greatest need of all is compassion, not just for them, but for everyone. So, if you feel that you have nothing to smile about, wipe that frown off your face and smile. Not because you’re happy, but because others need your smile. Give it away and watch it keep coming back. As you keep cheering up others, your life purpose will soon return.
Compassion isn’t a big thing. It’s a million little things, kind things. And since this is the season for giving, let’s remember that compassion is for giving and forgiving.
- Turning to the Source by Dhiravamsa
- The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology by Lorne Ladner, PhD
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff
- Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong by Norman Fischer
- The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook: A 14-Day Plan to Transform Your Relationship with Yourself by Tim Desmond LMFT
- Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations By Monica Worline and Jane E. Dutton
- Compassion and the true meaning of empathy
- The profound journey of compassion
- The balancing act of compassion