Pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion. Each is received at various times by one
in distress. They are the responses engendered by our misfortunes from those we
encounter. And each feels different when received. Each has a different effect
on those who are suffering in the midst of psychic or physical crisis.
Of the four, compassion has a unique quality, a quality so different from the
rest that it connotes a certain spiritual as well as emotional characteristic.
Perhaps for this reason it is often cited in spiritual/religious texts as a
virtue to be sought and developed.
The recipient of compassion
feels its superiority immediately. Unlike pity,
it has no condescension. Unlike empathy, it does not require a past or present
similar experience on the part of the giver. And while sympathy is a wonderful
virtue, it connotes less spontaneity and variety than compassion; one would not
normally associate laughter or frivolity with sympathy, for example. And there
is also a certain distance or separation inherent in sympathy, one sympathizes
with the other. A very wonderful quality, still, sympathy stands at a different
level than compassion.
While sympathy is a tender response to misfortune or difficulty, compassion
is a way of life.
The dictionary offers the following root for compassion: Com (with) - pati
(to suffer), to suffer with.
But there is another definition, one that does not limit compassion as a
response to suffering, but rather to life itself, making it a quality that one
would live with in every situation, with every person, rather than only with one
who is in distress.
Com-passion: Com (with) - passion (strong feeling, enthusiasm);
to be with another in strong feeling and with enthusiasm.
Compassion, then, does not require sadness, sorrow or even the desire to
help, though it could include all these things. It simply means being fully
present with someone no matter the circumstances of his or her life. Compassion
suspends judgment and takes each circumstance equally -- each as a moment of
life to be lived in its fullness. It . All possible emotions and feelings and
behaviors of which we are capable are inherent in every moment, in every
And so, compassion comes with no preconceptions. It has no attitudes. It has
no special face or tone of voice. It is not bound by rules of behavior, decorum,
expectations, though it may be guided by all of these things.
Compassion is prepared to meet others wherever they are, recognizing that the
circumstance or challenge they now face is as much a part of their life as any
other part of their life. Compassion can laugh or cry, joke or commiserate, be
curious and inquisitive, chatty or silent. Compassion is not afraid to be fully
present, hopeful, or lighthearted. Compassion does not turn away. It is never
afraid to see beauty or find humor or share a fractured heart.
Compassion contains no pity because it does not judge one circumstance of
life as better as or worse than the next. For it comes from a place in which all
things are from G-d's hand, presented to us to be lived to its completion.
Compassion is not constricted by "rules" because it recognizes the uniqueness
of each instant and each person. As compassion opens the door to visit the sick,
it has no idea what lies ahead and so is prepared for spontaneity, for the
unexpected -- whether from the patient or from itself.
Compassion creates its own result. As it interacts with the other, a new
thing happens, because compassion is prepared to yield to whatever happens next,
always with the other in mind.
Compassion is a spiritual quality often written about, rarely found
incarnate. Because to have compassion means to have full acceptance of each
circumstance in life. And this is very difficult to achieve. Thus, those who
have compassion are usually those who have a great deal of varied experience and
self exploration in their own lives. They have suffered, they have struggled
with their own inner demons, they have met and known such a wide variety of
people and touched the humanity in each of them in so many different situations
that they can no longer judge and reject, neither person nor circumstance. They
have come to realize that life offers what it offers and that each of us is all
of us. Their self exploration has revealed the worst of their demons, so that
when they see the demon in the other they can say hello.
And that is what compassion does: it simply says hello, with kindness and
grace. And because of this compassion is never a burden to whom it is directed.
Compassion is always welcome. It relieves the sick or bereaved from the need to
care for the visitor. It relieves the one who is burdened from the added burden
of being a source of burden to the other. For compassion comes simply to say
hello, to be a companion in whatever circumstance presents itself. Compassion
has come to simply listen or laugh, to accompany whatever is taking place
without expectation or the need to make things better. Because compassion
believes that things are as they are meant to be. And it believes that all
circumstance can be shared. Thus, compassion, when it enters, usually banishes
loneliness, and if not, it accompanies the lonely in their solitude.
Compassion can sit with the dying in silence, or with one giving birth,
marveling equally in the miracle taking place. Compassion can join in suffering,
accepting pain as a part of life. Compassion can jump into action, if action is
called for and desired. Compassion can give to the poor or help heal the sick,
without condescension or judgment or lack of respect.
And if these qualities of compassion seem Divine, it is because they are. And
the only hope of ever calling this quality one's own is to remember that it is
in the image of the Divine that we are created.
And if ever you are fortunate enough to be in the presence of compassion, you
will barely notice it, so natural does it seem -- as natural as G-d's hidden
presence, noticeable only if you look.