cactus blossoms

So What is It, Really?

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Tree in a flooded Utah river - compassion in a sea of indifference
Tree in a flooded Utah river – compassion in a sea of indifference

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.

Arches National Park, Moab, Utah
Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

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 may look like a thorny situation, but there's an opportunity for learning (flowers).
It may look like a thorny situation, but there’s an opportunity for learning (flowers).

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.

Arches National Park, Utah. For those in the desert, a few drops of water from the mountain means a lot.
Arches National Park, Utah. For those in the desert, a few drops of water from the mountain means a lot.




  1. I do understand exactly what you mean. It is easier to understand, having gone through a range of particularly difficult, trying and heartbreaking events. During these, pity is not what is required but, if you have people around you, who can help give you the courage to continue and the knowledge that you are worth it, then you will be alright. What you do is fabulous and you are a remarkable person for having seen what is truly needed.


    1. Sigh. Sometimes people don’t understand, and I feel a lot of pressure to fix things for people rather than to show them how to fix it themselves. Thanks for understanding rather than criticizing!


  2. your homeless and beggars are being taken care by the government better than in my country.

    I agree with you, I sometime give something to them but not to everyone…I look at how much they need it


    1. Most of the mentally ill don’t get anything from the government, living on the streets and under bridges. But you’re right – the homelessness in America usually fare better than homelessness in many other countries. We need to do what we can to help everyone, everywhere. Sigh. It feels overwhelming.


  3. I understand your view of compassion. Put simply, I would equate it to my idea of helping people help themselves. You are so right that you cannot
    remove the obstacles for people. That does not help them grow. Listening without blame or judgment and exploring alternative perspectives
    together is a constructive way to help people find their own “exits” or comforts. Sometimes there is no exit but there can be comfort just in knowing
    that someone else sees your pain and understands the hurt. Often just one’s presence is compassion. We are all insufficient sometimes.

    I thought long and hard about this one time long ago and this is what I came up with then. It is compassion from the heart where there is
    no condescending or air of superiority but there is feeling.

    A tear so tiny
    A wee crystal drop
    So heavy when it falls,
    Slowly it erupts
    from deep within some hidden place.
    A small part of my soul that surfaces
    To show on my face.
    As a witness
    That I care.

    Loretta 1973


    1. Thanks, Julie. I know you’re struggling with your situation. No dishonor there; it’s a difficult thing you have to do. Sending love your way.


  4. This is so beautiful and heartfelt. I agree with your take on compassion and believe it incorporates honor, respect, and deep care.


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