Do you think you’re a compassionate person?

Most people, if you asked them, would probably say that compassion is a good thing, and that being compassionate is a trait to strive for. But how much have you actually thought about what that means? Is it really one of your spiritual priorities?

Let’s say a friend or acquaintance of yours suffers the loss of a parent. As per the social convention, you pay them a condolence call.

To show compassion in this situation would mean to deeply identify with this person and to care honestly for their suffering. It would mean putting yourself in their shoes and, in your understanding of what they’re going through, offering them your empathy and kindness. The  relationship with a parent is huge, and the loss shouldn’t be glossed over, even if it is a natural part of the life cycle. Once you understand this, whether or not you can find the exact words to express your feelings, the depth of your identification will shine through.

Many people, however, find the experience of paying a condolence call awkward. They try to get it over with as quickly as possible, talking too much or too little in this uncomfortable situation. Their presence at the visit is a matter of social expectation, nothing more.

Be honest. Does that sound like you? Or do you actually take condolence calls as a chance to exercise your compassion?

Personally, I believe that compassion is an essential ingredient for true spiritual expansion. I hope I can convince you that it’s worth adding to your list of qualities that it is important to master.


Why is it such a struggle?

There are several reasons that many of us struggle to center compassion in our lives.

The first reason is that it’s often a monumental effort to imagine oneself experiencing what someone else is going through. To succeed in this, one has to agree to adopt a whole new roster of someone else’s emotions—and that’s on top of your own personal mental life. That effort is not terribly attractive. You would rather spend your energy perfecting something else, perhaps your ambition or patience or some other quality that your prize.

In other words, it’s easier to offer rote, stiff phrases to the bereaved than honest tenderness.

The second reason is that life may have taught you to be cynical, and you don’t believe people are truly good at heart. Why cultivate something like compassion when you live in a dog-eat-dog world? If you’ve had bad experiences, especially the kind where overt expressions of caring were fabricated, you won’t bother to put in the effort. Why open yourself up when everyone else is fake?

The third reason is even more calculating. Some people, even if they believe in compassion, see it as a prize that is extended only to those who deserve it, and they are the first to tell you who is worthy, and who isn’t. There’s no genuine compassion here because the person is stuck in their head and has little access to their heart. It’s an intellectualized phenomenon rather than a deep-seated feeling of care.

The real reason

If these reasons resonate with you, I’d like to offer you an alternative point of view of what compassion is and why it’s essential.

This is an issue of some personal relevance for me. I have mentioned before that I’ve been struggling for the last year and a half with medical boo-boos that have reduced me appreciably. I’m weak, I often can barely walk, and I am so far from the Ellie that everyone is used to.

I wish no one to go through what I’ve been experiencing, but if you do, God forbid, I hope you amass a support team that truly cares about you, loves you openly, and is prepared to do whatever is necessary in order to ameliorate your suffering.

I have had many surprises in the area of compassion since my health deteriorated. People I hardly knew have contacted me because they heard I was sick. Just by their voices, I could tell they were with me. It was wonderful. I felt embraced by the compassion in their tones.

Some people think they can fake it, but the real deal is obvious.

In other words, the biggest reason I have found for believing in compassion is that I know for myself how it feels to be loved by compassionate people.

I do not believe that we create a better world by hardening our hearts to anyone. A selfish and self-centered existence is cold and empty. We are all in this life together; when we feel each other, we bring warmth to one another’s lives.

It’s an exercise in spirituality to have a genuinely open heart. When you see someone’s pain and resonate to it—that’s the most human you can be.

Of course, it isn’t all smiles. Remember, I’ve been working with addicts for twenty years. I’ve seen some of the worst that people are capable of – how they can destroy their own lives and hurt everyone around them.

I know that it’s tempting to draw a clear line between yourself and those who have done harm.

It’s easy to feel superior and insist that they deserve what they get. But what’s the point? All you’re doing is engaging in the dangerous practice of shutting off your humanity. All you’re doing is denying that it’s a hard journey for all of us, including you. Are you really that different? Who knows when you might benefit from someone extending you compassion at your worst?

My family, for example, don’t always have it easy, dealing my medical problems. Like me, they are exhausted by how needy and self-centered I can be in this situation. For my part, I am hurt and ashamed; I don’t necessarily feel that I’ve done anything to earn their compassion. But like I’ve been saying, that’s what makes it so meaningful that, through thick and thin, they’ve been by my side.

Some of my children have revealed that they worry about me so much, praying about me many times a day and asking their friends to pray as well. How much more genuine can compassion be? I consider myself lucky.

It’s hard work

In Twelve Step programs, there is an instruction to regularly say a prayer for someone towards whom you feel a terrible pain in your heart. In the beginning, you may not be sincere when you pray for them to be freed from their personal pain. You may only say the words because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But after a while, the blessing starts to feel real, even towards someone who has caused you real harm, given you very real reason to hold a grudge.

You don’t want them to harm anyone else. But you also want them to experience freedom from their own pain.

I remember once the Dalai Lama sent one of his monks to Israel to teach us to meditate on the idea: Wouldn’t it be lovely if every living creature was freed from his suffering?

It’s hard to argue with that.