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What is Compassion?

by Collie Collier
April 2006 Firestarter column

I apologize to my kind readers for my long silence. Life has been rather interesting, in a somewhat metaphysical, somewhat Chinese sense, and I've been doing quite a lot of thinking even as I struggled to figure out how to balance work pressures and life needs. Hopefully this Firestarter will both shed some light on my on-line silence, and be of use or interest to you all. I would, in fact, be quite interested in any thoughts you may have on this subject.

Past Imperfect

So: first, where the titular question came from. Several years ago I picked up a book by the Dalai Lama. It was very slow going, since it required a lot of thought to completely grasp the sometimes confusingly simple, sometimes mind-twistingly complex precepts. It was quite fascinating, though, and I was making slow but steady progress... until I hit the main concept in one particular chapter.

It was a disarmingly simple concept which stopped me: practice compassion. But what precisely is compassion? How does one properly exercise it? Is it just being considerate of others? Would giving to charity suffice, or is actual action necessary? For that matter, why did the Dalai Lama choose the word 'compassion' instead of, say, 'forgiving' or 'educational' or 'thoughtful'? It was all interesting food for thought, so I read on eagerly to see if there was a more precise definition of this fascinatingly slippery concept.

There was indeed: compassion is trusting others -- and that's where I came to a screeching mental halt. Trust others!? Be open to them? Uhm, I don't know about that. Trust people I don't even know? Hell, no! What if they hurt me? What if they don't care about me, or worse, want to take advantage of me? Why should I trust them if they don't trust me?

I am not a very trusting person. As a child we moved quite a bit, and the one constant I knew I could expect of almost everyone around me was: in about 2 years they'd be gone. Further, since I was almost always the "new kid" in school I already knew I'd be the odd-man-out who was easiest to pick on. In some cases I was quite literally an outsider and a foreigner; a stranger in a strange land.

There was also the issue of being fat, ugly, clumsy, and unlovable, while simultaneously having a beautiful, athletic, and charming little sister whom my parents and friends preferred. In retrospect, of course, I know this was mostly in my own head and my own interpretation of events, but at the time that belief loomed immense and unshakeable.

I kept trying, of course, but blind hope in the worthiness of others does not make for good decision-making capabilities. Eventually the "I" of the time learned through painful trial and error that trusting others for much more than very short-term was a huge and glaring mistake which invariably invoked wrenching emotional and physical pain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I therefore spent much of my later life giving trust as grudgingly as possible. People could still earn trust from me, true -- but it took years, and you could shatter that trust in an instant. I knew it wasn't logical; I knew it wasn't even necessarily fair -- but trust was not something I did easily or well.

This was why I was completely stopped by the book's simple statement to trust others. On some level I realized it'd be rather pointless to read further in any sort of learning frame of reference, when I had such a huge and resounding, "NO! I can't! I won't! I don't understand!" always floating in the back of my mind. So I put the book aside to spend time trying to figure out this strange concept of freely given trust.

It wasn't easy. The uncharitable side of me that would like life to be simple and uncomplicated kept insisting the reason it didn't make sense was because it was nonsense. Of course the Dalai Lama could make such unreasonable demands on others -- he was the Dalai Lama! No one would want to be cruel or thoughtless to him, so of course it was safe for him to live in such an unrealistic fashion. In such a mind-set, it's easy to forget he's been living in self-imposed exile for decades due to a repressive military regime in his homeland.

Fortunately there is another part of me which loves learning and kindness and reason. That part of me kept quietly pointing out that if this sort of thought pattern really was unrealistic except for the occasional holy figure... then why were so many moved by the Dalai Lama's words? Why did so many "everyday" people, such as myself, find him such an inspiration, and a model upon which to build their lives?

Then too, there's a part of me that loves an intellectual challenge. I wanted to understand this peculiar, apparently counter-productive concept. Why were there folks who seemed to believe this, who also seemed so happy? Why weren't they hurt, confused, shattered by the actions of others whom they'd unwisely trusted? I was obviously missing something critical here... something curious and fascinating, perplexing and very, very intriguing.

Fundamentally changing how I think is not easy, though. It was about two years ago I laid that book aside, and only now do I think I'm beginning to grasp a little bit of what makes this concept work. There were a couple of clear steps I can remember.

Beauty isn't Truth

In high school we had to read a famous poem by John Keats titled "Ode on a Grecian Urn." It was purportedly about the mutual connection between beauty and truth, and while I was able to appreciate the poem the way the teacher wanted us to, it never really 'sang' to me. It left me, in fact, a bit cold, and I think I know why now, interestingly enough. The closing lines are:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It may sound painfully obvious in retrospect, but while truth may be beauty, beauty definitely isn't always truth. One only has to look at the polished, artificial, carefully dressed and posed, photoshopped renditions of models on magazine covers to understand just how commercially influenced our current social conception of beauty is. Those aren't real people being shown there, and the models themselves, in their moments of rational lucidity, are among the first to point that out.

Further, if that's not enough to demonstrate clearly that concepts of beauty are created by culture, take a moment to look at classical art for what used to be considered beautiful. The lush bodies of the models artists painted hundreds of years ago look very different from the gaunt and heavily made up women we're today told are the epitome of beauty.

So if beauty isn't truth, is the second part of the phrase also false -- is truth not beautiful either? From a personal perspective, I'd say truth is indeed beautiful. True, it can also be painful or devastating or overwhelming, but I personally prefer the cool beauty of terrifying truth to a lovely but palliative lie. I don't have any empirical evidence for this belief beyond my own experience, but I do know in the long run lies seem to create more damage than truth.

For example, when a child learns it cannot believe what has been promised to it, it loses faith. When trusted public figures such as doctors are caught deceiving the populace -- even if 'for their own good' -- then not only is public confidence shattered, but the individual's confidence in others is also slowly damaged. When governments consistently lie to their people, we end up with public anomie, and governments which feel they can do anything they want, because they are accountable to none.

Why is this important? Our culture is all about commercialism, and at its very base, public commercial media is all about deception. Beer isn't really going to make you irresistible to women, a new car isn't really going to make you a man, your child won't actually die if he doesn't epitomize the newest clothing fads, and people won't really recoil in horror if you don't watch TV every night. How many people allow themselves to actually realize that, though?

Further, if everyone around you seems to unquestioningly buy into this constant swirling cultural miasma of deception, would you trust them to be truthful with you? Heck, would you even question whether it might be bad for you to live in that sort of environment? That's why I think truth is beauty: I want to know what's real.

Purpose is but the slave to memory

Many people cope with our modern society by choosing to trust only in themselves -- in their grasp of "ultimate" truth, in the constancy of their memories or their faith. Curiously, every study I've ever read on learning notes memory is nothing more than chemical reactions within the brain. Further, repeatable empirical evidence clearly demonstrates people's memories change over time -- even when those same people would swear to you, with full belief in their veracity, that their memories had not changed whatsoever.

Consequently I think a huge mental step every successful adult has to take in their lives is to critically review their own memories, understanding they are not remembering "truth with a capital T"... and then forgive their child self for being hurt. Children apparently blame themselves for most of the pain they receive from adults, but the grown child needs to understand they weren't responsible for the abusive, cruel, or thoughtless adults in their lives.

The personal issues of those adults are not your problem! Don't let damaged people tell you it really was always your fault. Remember, everyone is the hero of their own story -- and that includes everyone who's ever been or will be in your life, as well as yourself -- so of course they'll remember things the way they want to.

"[L]ike one
Who having into truth, by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory,
To credit his own lie, he did believe..."
Prospero, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, act I, scene II

I think, in fact, that's a good warning flag to keep in mind. Anyone who believes they are never at fault, who always remembers someone else as culpable -- is probably wrong. In a nutshell: don't rely on memory in your search for truth.


There's a psychological self-protection technique called "projection." In effect, someone will have a personal behavioral trait they dislike, but do not wish to see in themselves. In order to protect their psyche, they therefore refuse to notice that trait in themselves, instead seeing it only (and in sharp relief) in others. Sometimes, in fact, that trait is only slightly present; other times it isn't even actually there -- its presence is being "projected" onto the victim by the person who is refusing to notice the trait in themselves.

Projection is one of the defense mechanisms identified by Freud and still acknowledged today. According to Freud, projection is when someone is threatened by or afraid of their own impulses so they attribute these impulses to someone else. For example, a person in psychoanalysis may insist to the therapist that he knows the therapist wants to rape some women, when in fact the client has these awful feelings to rape the woman.
from Psychology Glossary by

These are very simple examples of what are sometimes, in human beings, very complex and sometimes personally damaging mental constructs. Those who project unpleasant personal traits on others do a disservice to (often innocent) bystanders; those who project pleasant but false traits on others do a disservice to themselves.

I wonder, however, if this exists in all of us to some degree. I've been trying to notice the occurrence of projection both in myself and others, as I know from personal experience what a seductive palliative it is to find constant fault in others, rather than question my own behavior. How often, I wonder, do we needlessly limit ourselves with these mental crutches? More importantly, I think, is how do we get rid of them?

There are times you read or hear something, and you feel the sudden flash of enlightenment. This quote from Carl Jung did it for me:

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.

When someone annoys me, when I think what a dork they are and how much they irritate me... that quote reminds me to look within. Why am I so annoyed? What am I projecting onto this other person so I need not see it in myself?

I freely admit this is not a pleasant procedure, but it's had some odd and unexpected repercussions for me. For starters, it's hard to be angry with others once you realize you're really angry with yourself... and I find it a relief to feel calmer when dealing with others. Secondly, I find it pleasantly liberating to realize my true issues are with myself rather than others. I cannot change others, after all -- but I can change myself any time I want and choose to. Thirdly, like love, I've found it's far easier to forgive others once you can truly forgive yourself.

Journey towards compassion

Sometimes you have to revisit old goals to see where you are in your journey; to check whether you've perhaps unwittingly already reached your goal. Scrutinizing the roadmap doesn't only show where you're headed, after all -- it also shows where you've been.

So, because practicing compassion isn't an off/on switch I can easily flip, this is me reflecting on my efforts to date. In checking my mental roadmap, I can ask myself, 'How am I doing? Where am I and where have I come from to get here? Am I there yet?'

The dictionary definition of 'compassion' is:

the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it; a deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering.

Admittedly this doesn't precisely match the Dalai Lama's definition, but it's a definition I can more easily grasp, especially since such empathy for others would seem to be the natural result of implementing Jung's quote.

So, regarding the Dalai Lama's definition: Am I there yet? No, I don't think so. Am I making any progress in comprehending and internalizing the Dalai Lama's definition? Maybe. It's a personal work in progress, really. I'll let you know if I notice any further changes.

Reader comments

02.04.06: Erin's thoughts

Compassion as I try to practise it:

These are random thoughts at five o'clock in the morning, so if they're not very coherent, I have a good excuse. :)

This seems pretty clear to me -- I hope I'm half so coherent at that hour of the morning! ;)

I don't usually have problems with trusting too little, though interestingly enough, I also grew up moving from place to place every few years. Maybe the reason is my basically effective parents - though they had issues, at no point have I ever doubted that they loved me and wanted what is best for me. Whatever the reason, trust does not come hard to me, so I tend to be an open book with my friends.

I... don't know. I find it very interesting you also moved frequently, but don't seem to have any issue with trust. I will agree my parents definitely wanted what they thought was best for me. I'll have to think about this further.

When I consider the idea of trusting others on a more general level, one thought springs to mind: most people are basically decent folk, trying hard to make it through life with their emotional and physical security intact. Most people are not out to hurt others.

On this I quite agree. I believe most damage people do to others is based on thoughtlessness or self-protective selfishness rather than a genuine desire to harm others... thank goodness.

This is one of my core beliefs. It's an essential part of my worldview, and I want it to be an essential part of my children's worldview as well, because for the most part, it allows me to see other people's actions, not as being AGAINST me, but as being protective of themselves. I may not agree with how they do it - their methods may actually make me quite angry, and I'm quite vocal when I'm angry - but I can usually find a way to see their side of things because of this belief. As you pointed out, their actions aren't about me - but how I view their actions generally is.

This means that I'm often willing to give the benefit of the doubt in cases where others might not. For example, for an awful lot of people especially right now, the term "pro-life" is almost a swear word. They see pro-lifers primarily as trying to take away the choice of other people.

That viewpoint, though, is centered on the "out-to-get-others" view of people's actions. If we look at it from the point of view of "out-to-protect-myself" worldview, we get a very different picture. We get a picture of someone whose compassion is centred around a baby who has absolutely no say in anything that is going on. It's safe to empathize with a baby. They can't refute, they can't hurt, they have in fact no concept of self or others as of yet. A baby is a symbol of all that is possible in the world, and for a firm pro-lifer, abortion is like killing a little bit of the hope in a world that needs all the hope it can get.

Many pro-lifers - certainly the ones I know - are wonderful, compassionate people with whom I agree on many issues. Seeing their viewpoint in this light, I can forgive them for its rigidity, not because they're right - I don't actually believe that they are - but because their viewpoint is so firmly embedded in self-protection, protection of their own reasons to hope for the future of humanity, that I can see where they've come from and where they're trying to go.

Makes sense to me. I admit I struggle with this frequently (trying to see things from the other's point of view) but interestingly enough I've found it also means I spend far less time enraged with how "unreasonable" others are. It also means I have some sort of common ground (however tenuous my understanding) on which we can try to reason with each other, and attempt to understand.

This is also why I so dislike it when I ask what is to me a real and confusing question like, "Why do they think that?!" -and get back dismissive nonsense like, "Oh, they're just idiots!" Where is the common ground there? How will we communicate at all if we're infantilizing all who disagree with us? On a broader scale, when we have so-called Liberals and Conservatives sneering at the other as being diseased or mentally damaged, I have to ask: how does this help our nation? How does it help
us in the long run?

Gnargh... don't get me started -- trusting thoughts, working on trusting thoughts... ;) Truth be told, though, this is why I cannot bear currently to associate myself with either political party, as they're all apparently busy playing the self-destructive 'if you ain't with us, you're agin us -- and we attack you more viciously than we do our actual enemy' game. I hope my country grows up a bit, soon.

Which brings us to forgiveness. To me, compassion is about forgiving people for being human, and accepting that their pain and suffering will sometimes be the result of their own poor choices. It also means agreeing to help them even so, based on need rather than merit. Anyone who expects people to always make good choices, and won't help them if they haven't, lacks a fundamental requirement for compassion.

Hmm. So you feel forgiveness is more important than trust, in order to practice compassion? Or... perhaps it's more you see trust as a form of forgiveness? That could make sense to me, if so.

A compassionate person can see where another went wrong; can evaluate the "should haves" in the situation; and still decides to forgive that person their human imperfections of choice, and help them to improve their situation so as to make better choices in the future.

Christian activism should come down to this. The first principle of Christian social aid is to meet people where they are - wherever that may be - forgive them for it, and help them move to a better place, one step at a time. All three are essential to a practice of compassion. Inherent in that idea is the fact that the forgiveness needs to be broad, covering both things they've done that have no impact on me and things that have actually hurt me personally. The idea here is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Pardon my (boringly hypocritical) cynicism in an article about compassion, but... I sure wish more people who call themselves "Christian" had your ideas about what behavior was appropriate in order to so label themselves. ;)

This is not about not being aware of their own actions; it doesn't let them off the hook for those. It does, however, admit that their actions are about THEM, not about the person they've hurt; they are quite likely unaware of that, because they aren't ready yet to see it. That prayer, in the context in which it was uttered, is the epitome of compassion. It forgives those who have hurt him; it sees that their choices were made to be about them, not about him; and it is uttered when he is paying the biggest price possible in order to help them, neither in spite of nor because of the hurt but just because they need the help.

That level of self-sacrifice scares me. I confess one of the reasons I do not consider myself christian is because I'm fairly sure I do not have that level of forgiveness in me... and when I've asked for deific inspiration in order to find it, I've not received any I could sense.

And yes, I'm quite aware, faith-wise, this is a short-coming on
my part. I no longer hold any deity responsible for my lack of faith, mostly because I don't see any need to feel angry and betrayed for my lack of belief or experience. Constant anger (especially at something/one I cannot seem to experience) is hard work, and in my experience usually not worth the effort. My hesitant explorations of trust are based on what I hope is a (finally) healthy recognition of that fact.