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Rethinking Compassion

compassion quote


It’s time we had an honest, heartfelt conversation about compassion.  Yes, that warm and fuzzy, touchy-feely word we associate with goodness… NOT.  Compassion is not those things.  Compassion is mostly disabling and dysfunctional. 

Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, compassion is a natural and probably useful feeling for the hopelessly and terminally ill, the hopelessly depressed aged and abused children too young to take charge of their lives.  In all other cases it really doesn’t serve us or the recipients we feel compassionate toward. 

Compassion, by definition (not mine), is a feeling wrought with pity and feeling sorry for.  If you are a person who has, let’s say, just spanked your child and are now telling me about it and feeling remorse, how does it serve you for me to compassionately collude with you by saying “we all make mistakes sometimes,” or “don’t beat yourself up over that, he’ll forget about it soon enough,” or “everyone spanks their child sometimes.”  Such responses, for sure, might make you feel better.  Do they help you?  No! 

When I am feeling remorse or troubled over an action I’ve taken, as in this example, I want to change my thinking and future action so I don’t feel this way again.  I want to never resort to spanking my child again.  I want to figure out why I did this in the first place – identify the trigger(s) – and plan for a different course of future action that will have me feeling strong and empowered, not weak and remorseful.  I am not nearly as spurred to challenge myself in this way when others are compassionately reinforcing me to maintain the status quo.  

I want to replace compassion with responsibility.  When you tell me you have spanked your child and are feeling badly about it, I want to say “why did you spank him? how do you feel about it? what might you do differently next time you are triggered?”  I am willing to take personal responsibility for posing questions and listening to the responses and carefully assisting in dissecting the thought and action involved in the situation that has caused dissonance/discomfort.  I am willing to take personal responsibility because I believe we really are all ONE contiguous human energetic: I am part of all the good and all the less than good thought and action that takes place everywhere, all the time.  This feeling of ONENESS comes from what I believe to be true: LOVE, and only LOVE, is the center of everything good and useful and powerful and right in the world.  I show my love by being responsible, not compassionate.


Well said! I feel exactly the same on this.  Are we not here to support each other?  Support is not collusion in misery or negative action.  Support is encouraging one another to be our best, to feel good, strong, and empowered.  This applies to anyone who has the ability to make choice- that’s just about everyone!  Making excuses for people does not help them nor does it support our own journey.  By giving in to the negative energetic, we are, in fact, dropping our own positive intention and caving to that feeling of powerlessness.  We’ve relinquished our personal integrity to what is ‘easy’ or ‘standard’ in going to that place with that person but we have not done either of us a service.  As people who are connected, we give the most by engaging in active listening and problem solving with those around us.  Many times I have found that these exchanges are powerful learning experiences for the both parties.

Compassion is often a lazy response.  It’s easier just to give someone an emotionally disabling pat on the back and move on with our busy lives.  It’s easier to think of people who are making poor decisions or none at all and feel ‘sorry’ for them.  What are you saying about your own ability to make choice if you are not of the mind that we all have that power?  That you are superior?  Or maybe that you don’t truly believe in the power of choice at all?  Take time and replace compassion with true, responsible love.  We all grow.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I choose to hear the word “compassion” as “co-passion”. I also choose to hear the word “responsible” as “response able.”

    Compassion truly can be a knee-jerk and ineffectual reaction; a fuzzy-wuzzy glossing over of a self dis-empowerment that is a lie. However… in a world where there is so much cold judgementality, it seems a shame to throw out warmth. We need warm human connection.

    As you said, LOVE is the center of everything useful. And I know you are not excluding warmth, far from it. Though love can be detached, it is not cold. I am just noting that love has many faces, each useful in its own time. There are times a person needs to feel our warmth and humanity before they can hear anything else from us.

    When I feel another’s distress, a loving passionate desire to support them in returning to their own knowing wells within me. Their distress is a passionate feeling also, telling them they really care about the subject they are distressed about. Bridging these co-passions requires being empowered to respond from a place of love, to speak from a place of openness, not judgement nor assertion. It can be a slippery slope, we need to feel our way through it.

    I agree fully that the “compassionate” responses most people offer as band-aids are often based on wanting to lazily just maintain status quo, and they can feel almost caustic as we overhear them, esp when we hear them in conjunction with how children are treated. But… they are also based in something good, the desire to offer relief from pain to another human being. This is a very wonderful humane desire, the same one we so naturally feel for our children when they cry. Relief from pain is good.

    But it is only the beginning, and I think this is what you speak to. Relief serves us as a bridge… we are only to be on it long enough to cross over into real visceral expansion, to think more, ask more, choose more, not cuddle up in fuzzy-wuzzy words that hold us, and others, in comfortable, but painful, status quo.

    We are energetic, passionate beings, and I love that we can come together via love as co-passionate creators.

    January 24, 2012
    • Thanks, Dawn. I agree with you about the bridge but I think we can do better than offering ‘relief’ in those situations. Relief feels to me like validation and I neither want to play a part in validating the miserable feeling nor the event that preceded it. In nursing school we were taught a technique called ‘active listening’ which I have found very useful and a great bridge in communication with adults as well as children. I believe I read about this technique in Connection Parenting by Pam Leo as well (although she didn’t call it as such). We act as a mirror for the other person by reframing their own words in our responses. As I write this, it does sound cold but it does not feel so in practice. It is listening and then showing that other person that we are, in fact, listening- that we are hearing their feelings about the situation. In my experience, that’s what most people need- a sensitive, listening ear. Hearing their own feelings and their version of the situation often gives them more objectivity as well thus creating the bridge to a conversation of expansion.

      Just as we’re not here to damage others, we’re not here to fix them, either. There is a middle ground, I believe. We can listen, observe, reflect, and question. This is all very caring.

      January 26, 2012
  2. Kristine #

    wow – I think I would define compassion very differently than you both! You define it as “pity” a “pat on the back” and “lazy”. I don’t think those define the word compassion at all. This post comes off as very negative. I don’t disagree with your larger points – it just feels like you’ve decided to trash the word compassion wrongly, which is something I view much more positively!

    January 24, 2012
    • Kristine, take a look at a dictionary for the definition… as I said in the post the definition was not mine. Given the definition and the value our culture tends to place on compassion, I think it’s time to dig a little deeper and get closer to what we really intend, which is a love that comes from responsibility, not complacency.

      January 25, 2012
    • I think it’s interesting that so many of the comments sections of these posts get caught up in a word rather than the feelings and intentions that we are expressing (I think rather articulately) within the post itself. Maybe your personal definition of compassion differs from the actual definition but what we’re actually talking about goes deeper than that and is pervasive on a cultural level. It is lazy to sympathize and walk away. True connection comes in the delving deeper. Why are they feeling this powerless/misery/regret? What are the steps to move out of this feeling?

      January 25, 2012
  3. Amy #

    I am glad you are talking about this topic because I feel we need *more* compassion, but I prefer the definition of compassion from Merriam-Webster… “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. I understand that people may move *with* a desire to alleviate by over-sympathizing, trying to fix another’s problem, or commiserating. To me, that is not compassion; that’s commiseration and enabling. It most often does not open the space for the empathetic listening Sarah talks about along with effective problem solving.

    Sarah, I really appreciate these sentiments…

    “Support is not collusion in misery or negative action. Support is encouraging one another to be our best, to feel good, strong, and empowered.

    As people who are connected, we give the most by engaging in active listening and problem solving with those around us. Many times I have found that these exchanges are powerful learning experiences for the both parties.”

    So maybe compassion isn’t the issue; redefining and really embracing it is. 🙂

    January 24, 2012
    • Amy #

      My take on compassion is outlined in this post also…

      I don’t call it that specifically, but my understanding and experience of compassion for another factors in for me.

      January 24, 2012
    • When all is said and done, semantics will be at the root of probably everything we discuss. With that said, I don’t feel in alignment with this definition of compassion either because it says nothing about what I feel is necessary in an authentic desire to “alleviate it (suffering),” which is taking responsibility – being real and authentic and caring enough to have a conversation with another in the midst of suffering, such that the sufferer can give real thought to the cause(s) of the suffering. Connection with the sufferer, no matter how heartfelt, is confusing and less than. I want to step the connection up and be willing to immerse myself in their suffering so I can both understand it and assist with healing/feeling better/change, etc.

      January 25, 2012
    • I think we do see a prevalence of tunnel vision that ignores the suffering of others as well as those who lend commiseration. But I would say rather than attempting to redefine compassion, a whole lot more connection is in order.

      January 25, 2012
      • Amy #

        I sense that because this conversation is online and possibly you did not read the post I shared you may not understand where I am coming from. That’s fine with me as it appears the discussion blossomed further in the comments below. I am content to disagree respectfully with the initial post and I am really glad that no one specific has a monopoly on how to rethink anything; we each must come to it on our own and collectively. 🙂

        January 27, 2012
  4. mbh #

    My understanding of compassion is less Webster (western) and more Buddhist. In the Buddhist tradition, “Compassion is the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and its causes.”

    My version of compassion is not wrought with pity and feeling sorry for anyone. Absolutely not. And it is not meant to make someone feel better or to make excuses for them. Compassion does not preclude thinking, responsibility, or growth.

    Compassion is not an action; compassion is a state of the mind and heart. I don’t give compassion; I feel compassion. I wish for you to not suffer. I am not attached to your experience and therefore I have no investment in any outcome that you choose.

    I do not excuse your (or my) hurtful or harmful behavior. Compassion is not giving in to negative energy; compassion is creating positive energy. Compassion is not lazy. In fact, it can be quite challenging. If someone hurts or harms me, it can be very hard for me to wish for them to be free from suffering. It is actually easier (and lazier) to harbor feelings of anger and a wish for that person to suffer in return.

    With compassion, I release my judgements, anger, and resentments because when I step outside my own attachments to what I want for others and what I believe is *right* (and instead wish for others to be free from suffering) I plug myself in to the ONENESS with all. I release myself from my own suffering, and to me, that is true self-responsibility.

    January 25, 2012
    • where would we be without suffering? Not only can I not imagine a world without it, but I don’t think it would be desirable either. I absolutely do not want a flat line, 24 hour a day orgasm…. because if I had one, an orgasm would not feel like an orgasm.

      Suffering is the contrast each of us brings into our own worlds when we are ready for challenge, change and a shift in thinking or action. Without opportunities to suffer, our ability to think, rethink, grow, consciously evolve are much more limited. If we live in a world, whether it be the world in our heads or the big blue planet, that was all milk and honey, how would we keep growing and evolving?

      To be clear, I am not suggesting that ALL growth and self improvement comes from suffering, but suffering is definitely a contrasting experience that spurs us toward growth and change. Further, while I don’t enjoy suffering any more than the next person, I welcome it nonetheless because it gives me opportunity to look deeper within, see things in ways I’ve not seen them before, experiment with new ways of being.

      January 25, 2012
      • mbh #

        I believe the absence of suffering is not orgasm or even ecstacy. It is peace. Suffering is. It always exists. I can wish for myself and others to have periods of peace during suffering. I can learn in suffering or in peace.

        January 25, 2012
        • I’ve been contemplating what you’ve said here and feeling uncomfortable. You wish for no suffering in the world yet are resigned to knowing that suffering is always there. That feels to me like wishing I looked like Jamie Foster or Angelina Jolie and yet knowing there isn’t a damn thing I can do to make that happen… or learned helplessness. Now THAT’s suffering.

          I am also struck with your ability to suffer in peace. If I had to come up with just one word that was the opposite of peace it might just be suffering. I am ready to listen and learn here though. Can you please share with me how you achieve peace in the throes of suffering? I do well with examples, so help me get to peace when I am suffering from the death of someone I love deeply or am suddenly faced with a challenging health crisis, or my child has just committed a serious crime.

          January 25, 2012
      • mbh #

        Barb, Perhaps I’m not articulating what I mean very well. I can’t promise I can do much better, but I will try. Or, it just might be too radical to accept as a possiblity.

        I recognize that suffering is a part of our human experience, but it doesn’t mean that I have to resign myself to it, believing I am powerless over my suffering. Quite the opposite. I believe that we DO have the power to release ourselves from suffering (at times and to our ability — that’s the hard part). It is the opposite of learned helplessness. It is the belief that peace is always a potential.

        You say, “I am also struck with your ability to suffer in peace.” I say, “If you are in peace, you are not suffering.”

        Yes, I did say, “I can wish for myself and others to have periods of peace during suffering.” What I meant to say is that I wish for myself and others to find a refuge of peace (even if it is for short periods of time), when faced with a painful situation.

        You say, ” Can you please share with me how you achieve peace in the throes of suffering? I do well with examples, so help me get to peace when I am suffering from the death of someone I love deeply or am suddenly faced with a challenging health crisis, or my child has just committed a serious crime.”

        I can honestly tell you that I don’t know that I personally am capable of not suffering in those kinds of situations. However, I have compassion for myself in that I would wish that I could be free from that suffering. I’m sure people will now say, “Why shouldn’t I suffer when something horrific has happened?” And my question back is, “How does your suffering serve your or them?” Does lack of suffering mean that you don’t care? No. Or that you don’t want to change the situation? No. Or that you didn’t love that person who is hurting or harmed? No.

        So let me take this to a great extreme. If my son were to die, I can’t express the depths of grief I would feel. If, however, I were to release my beliefs that “It should not have happened,” “I deserve to have him longer,” “I should have done something differently,” etc. etc and instead I could accept that this is how it is, then I could (theoretically) find myself in a place of peace. Acceptance (not to be confused with passive helplessness) breeds peace. The fact that I could experience peace in the midst of my son’s death would not diminish the depth of love I have for him or would ever have for him. Which brings me to my next point.

        I think that there is an interesting and deep belief that we all share that is something like, “if I don’t suffer with you, I don’t care. If I am not outraged, then I don’t love you. If I am not moved in some huge way, I will not take action,” “If I don’t experience pain, I will not grow.” But if you really thing about it, that does not have to be true.

        With that said, I fully admit that I suffer along with the rest of us. I simply believe that my suffering doesn’t serve a purpose in and of itself that can’t be accomplished without suffering.

        I’m still not sure I have explained this very well, but I tried.

        January 25, 2012
        • I think you did a helluva good job continuing this discussion, and I actually agree with you completely. I still disagree on the feeling/action regarding compassion, but about releasing pain and suffering I am totally in sync. This is a challenge however and I am happy I have not been challenged too much yet. : ) In theory however, I am there. Thanks.

          January 25, 2012
        • This is a great conversation!
          “‘If I don’t suffer with you, I don’t care,’ ‘If I am not outraged, then I don’t love you,’ ‘If I am not moved in some huge way, I will not take action,”If I don’t experience pain, I will not grow.”

          I love this section as a mirror because many do believe that when they do not see these reactions to their suffering that it is a lack of love, caring, action, etc. And yet we are not required to embody the expectations of others and, in fact, are most supportive when we love in this unconditional, objective way.

          Your description of peace and allowing is stirring and I see the Buddhist connection to which you referred earlier. I think this may be the key to everything! Recommended reading?

          January 26, 2012
      • mbh #


        January 25, 2012
  5. archana #

    Dawn and mbh, I would not have been able to say it with as much eloquence or clarity. I’m feeling the resonance and it’s awesome!!

    January 25, 2012

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