When we are faced with individuals who have experienced loss, pain, disappointment, betrayal or any of the many other shared human experiences that cause suffering, it is natural to feel compassion toward these individuals.
What is compassion and how do we express it? Brene Brown describes compassion as “recognizing and and accepting our shared humanity so we treat ourselves and others with loving kindness.” But that is not all. It also involves taking “action in the face of suffering.” This takes courage to plunge ahead into what brings us fear.
True compassion involves more than just the emotion of “feeling sorry for someone.” This is sympathy. It is far more effective and healing for both to actively listen and understand what the suffering person is going through. This is empathy. And then take action to alleviate their suffering. This may range from a kind word, “it must be painful to go through what you are experiencing and I am here for you. What can I do to help?” to actually, bravely diving in and doing something to alleviate suffering. An example would be volunteering to feed the homeless, or deliver food and supplies to hurricane victims.
There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy connotes a separation between you and the suffering. Expressions like “you poor thing”, or “If you think that hurts, let me tell you what happened to me”. This is actually arrogant, competitive and unhelpful - in fact it may make the suffering person feel worse!.
Empathy involves actually identifying with another person’s pain. One does not have to experience the same suffering as the victim, but the compassionate soul uses empathy to truly hear and understand the suffering person’s pain, establishing a true connection with the suffering. This can lead to actual healing.
As you go through your day, be mindful of the fact that there are folks suffering all around you. Lean in and listen, really listen, understand and accept another’s suffering and their resulting emotions, without judgment or separation. Compassion and action may result and you can be the vehicle to reduce someone else’s suffering, even if just a little.
Dr. John Monaco