I talk a lot about compassion in this space, but what is it, really? Many people think of it as something akin to sympathy, but I disagree. Sympathetic compassion stinks of “I’m better than you and your life sucks. You poor pitiful thing.” There is such a feeling of superiority with that type of compassion that doesn’t indicate respect for others. To me, true compassion is looking at another person as an equal, respecting and honoring the experience that person is going through that they find difficult. I acknowledge their current time period of learning, which may be exceedingly unpleasant, and honor them for engaging in such a challenge. I acknowledge and honor the courage to deal with something that’s making them stronger, even if they aren’t sure how to handle it.
If I try to remove their obstacle and fix their problem, I deprive them of the opportunity for spiritual growth. So when I say “compassion,” it is an enduring sense of honor and respect for the spark of God within them, in a way which does not take over their burden. If it feels appropriate, I may assist them, emotionally or physically, with their burden for a short time. I won’t take it from them. I won’t treat them as if they are too weak to handle it alone. I show them that I have faith in their ability to cope and endure, assisting to the extent appropriate. It is my belief that I can help them become stronger, so that they can carry their own load, rather than carrying it for them.
On a personal – not a professional – level, what does it mean to live my life from a place of compassion? It does not mean fixing everyone’s problems. It does not mean sugary sympathy for an endless pity party. It doesn’t mean I reinforce a victimized attitude; I’m all for taking responsibility for our lives. It does not mean that I overextend myself to take care of others who have chosen not to take care of themselves.
It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It takes looking into someone’s eyes and seeing past their appearance and their stories, and trying to help the soul inside. Sometimes, my actions don’t look like what others would consider to be compassion. But for me, it has integrity, and I’ve found that most people appreciate being truly seen for who they are. There are a few who just want me to take over their burden, give them money, and buy into their victimization story. I feel like there is nothing I can do for them.
There are other times, when I see that they just need a few dollars or other small kindness to get further on their path. Yes, I do give money to homeless people and beggars. Not all of them, but there are times when I see that they aren’t in a shelter, they aren’t hitting the soup kitchen, and they aren’t milking the public services for all they can get. They are likely mentally ill and in a place where there doesn’t appear to be an exit. Their need is so excruciatingly raw, and my wallet is full enough to help them. It’s honoring the soul in their eyes, not through compassion, but kindness.