Compassion means, quite literally, to ‘suffer with’ others. It is, therefore, a sense of fellow-feeling with other people’s pain or suffering.
It is often linked with Empathy, and also with sympathy, in many people’s minds.
There is, however, an element of action in compassion that is missing from sympathy or empathy, which are totally focused on ‘feeling’.
Compassion leads you to take some action to help the other person, not just feel for them.
Aristotle on Compassion
Aristotle suggested that there was a distinction between compassion and other virtues, in that compassion could also be an emotion. In other virtues, he suggested, there is a separate emotion: anger is often felt at injustice, for example.
The virtue of compassion, therefore, is a tendency to feel the emotion of compassion at the right times, in the right ways, and to the right extent.
Compassion is a pain at an impression of destructive or painful evil as befalling one who doesn’t deserve it, and which one might expect oneself or someone close to oneself to suffer, when it seems nearby.
A More Modern Slant on Compassion
Compassion, then, is the result of seeing someone suffering, deciding that they do not deserve it, and feeling that something similar could easily happen to you, or to someone that you care about.
The nearness of the problem may be crucial to the desire to take action. There is an implication that without this closeness, you would simply feel sympathy, and not the need to take action which is part of compassion.
This sounds plausible. For example, Bob Geldof’s desire to do something to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s was driven by television pictures, not by first-hand experience, or by reading about it. Comic Relief and similar organisations have spent considerable effort taking celebrities to witness both suffering and the programmes that alleviate it first hand in order to bring the situation closer to home and create more impact and desire to do something to help.
Compassion and Religion
Compassion is valued by many world religions, including Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity.
God is seen as being compassionate and merciful, and there are many teachings about the importance of compassion towards others.
For example, Jesus told a parable about a man who fell among thieves and was rescued by a ‘good Samaritan’ who had compassion for him, even though the man was a different race and creed.
Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury.
The Dalai Lama
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.
Matthew 7:12 The Bible (ESV)
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts.
Colossians 3:12 The Bible (ESV)
However, there is another issue about compassion in the Christian tradition: it lacks any sense that the suffering should not be deserved.
Christians believe that God welcomes sinners, and forgives them, because He is compassionate.
It does not matter whether they have sinned deliberately, or ‘brought their troubles on themselves’.
Compassion at Work
Compassion is perhaps the virtue that is most important for doctors (and see our page on Goodness in Professional Life), but it is also important for others too.
Anyone who manages others must be able to feel compassion for those that they manage, when it is appropriate. This will motivate them to do something, in their role as line manager, to help that person.
It is also possible to argue that we should all be aware of the need for compassion towards others. Workplaces are often cited as harsh and hard places (“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, you know”), and a little compassion, exercised appropriately, could go a long way towards making them feel more human. Research shows that workers who feel that they are treated with compassion are more committed to their jobs, which is good news for their employers.
The Importance of Compassion
Research shows that compassion has a neurological basis, in that feelings of compassion affect particular parts of our brains. It also shows that:
- Being compassionate makes us feel good. It activates pleasure centres in the brain, a bit like eating chocolate, which has a positive effect on self-esteem;
- Being compassionate could actually be good for your health because it seems to slow your heart rate down, which could reduce the risk of heart disease and stress;
- One compassion training programme was found to help reduce stress in those who attended the programme;
- Compassion tends to make us better at communicating and relating to others, whether that’s partners, children, parents or friends. Improved social relationships are generally agreed to be good for you; and
- Societies which are on balance more compassionate—that take steps to care for vulnerable members of society, and help those in need—tend on average to be happier.
Feeling concern about someone else, wanting to do something to help them, and then doing it, is good for you, for those around you, and for society as a whole.
Finding the Balance
There is, however, a balance point for compassion. Feeling too much compassion can be as bad as feeling too little.
Compassion fatigue is a phrase used for those who have to witness or hear about a lot of suffering.
To protect themselves from the personal and emotional impact of what they are reading, they close down their emotional response and try not to feel compassion, whether consciously or unconsciously. This can have knock-on effects on them and those around them because it affects their other emotional and cognitive responses.
Compassion fatigue is now a recognised medical condition.
This is, of course, most important for those managing clinical staff and other professionals whose work brings them into contact with illness and suffering. But many people have suggested that constant media images of suffering may have a similar effect on the rest of us in making us more cynical about the real impact of suffering.
In other words, the pictures are less able to bring suffering closer, and we become more likely to insist on first-hand experience before feeling compassion.
It is important to be aware of these responses, and resist the urge towards cynicism. Feeling compassion is a vital part of being human.
It is also important to take appropriate action as a result of feeling compassion. As the proverb goes, give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day; teach him to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.
Compassion wrongly expressed (the provision of fish) may result in immediate alleviation of suffering but no long-term effects.
Compassion expressed in the right way (for example, teaching a skill) can and should provide long-term solutions. Remembering this could save a lot of pain later.