Compassion: Suffering together

Compassion, from the Latin compati, means ‘to suffer with.’ Aristotle argued that we could only experience it if we thought the suffering of another was nontrivial. Aristotle said ‘we would not have compassion for the upset of an emperor who’d lost a shipment of Larks tongues he’d ordered for his party!’ In this sense, it is required that we perceive the person who is suffering as ACTUALLY suffering. The second part of the way Aristotle defined compassion was that there was a sense of deserve, or that it was warranted. Finally, we would have to have some sense of that suffering, or that we could imagine ourselves in their situation. In this sense, empathy really textured the nature of compassion for Aristotle. In a previous post, we defined compassion as Empathy + Action, and in this week’s post, we will learn some steps that we can use every day!

Is Compassion Related to Empathy?

When we experience Empathy for another person, we attempt to feel with them. This definition sounds close to our compati, in that we are trying to experience something together. The difference is that Compassion is based in suffering and action, whereas Empathy can span the range of emotions. The sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others is the key to suffering together. The link between empathy and compassion is that the latter requires us to DO SOMETHING. Compassion is the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering that motivates a subsequent desire to help.

How do we practice compassion?

Learning a new set of skills can be challenging. It takes practice and patience. Having a list of rules that we can play by can also be helpful. We will start with a basic set of 5 skills involved in experiencing compassion more regularly. First, we have to recognize the suffering of another. Similar to empathy, this requires us know what suffering looks like. Second, we have to remember that everyone has struggles. Whatever a person’s background. Everyone must struggle through different parts of life. The third part of practicing compassion is connection to the person who is suffering. We must experience emotional resonance. And 4) tolerating the feelings brought about to the person who is suffering. Remaining open to the potentially uncomfortable emotions is important for action. If we can not handle how sad we feel, for example, we will struggle to reach out our hand to the person in need. Finally, we must be motivated to act. It takes an action on our part to help others. Although having empathy is a good start for us to improve our communities, it is insufficient on its own. There must be an action associated with the feelings of empathy that produce good in the life of another person.

What are the steps?

  • Recognize suffering;
  • Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience;
  • Feeling empathy for the person suffering and connecting with the distress (emotional resonance);
  • Tolerating uncomfortable feelings aroused in response to the suffering person (e.g., distress, anger, fear) so remaining open and accepting of the person suffering;
  • Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.

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