Looking hard at compassion

‘Compassion’ is one of those words easily chucked about that does a good line in making you sound spiritual and enlightened. I think it’s always worth poking anything that can be wafted about easily to make sure we’re doing what we think we’re doing.

Is the compassion something that lives in our heads, or is it translating into action? We can feel compassion for the hungry, the homeless, etc, but if it’s just about our feels, it does nothing to alleviate suffering. Telling ourselves we are feeling compassion may be a way of letting ourselves off the hook, assuaging guilt without actually doing anything useful.

The ‘I’m feeling so compassionate towards you right now’ stance can also be a way of disempowering the other. Here I am, all big, spiritual, shiny and wise feeling compassion for you because clearly you need it. Smug compassion can be more about making ourselves feel bigger than the one who needs our compassion. If it takes that shape, it does no good at all. Compassion can be a re-framing of pity, and pity only drags people down, it never lifts them.

‘I’m being compassionate towards myself’ can be a fantastically effective way of re-branding selfishness. It can be used to justify self interest and to protect us from having to look at the things which might otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. Ironically the people who most need to practice self care are the ones most likely to be hauling themselves over the coals, and the ones who can easily announce their compassion for themselves are, from what I’ve seen, the ones who have least need for it. And if you’re the kind of overthinker who perpetually tries to second guess their own motives, sorry about this paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves, unless we do that as a way of not being responsible or honourable.

I admit that if I encounter someone who talks a lot about how compassionate they are, I become rapidly sceptical. I’m interested in people talking about how to practice compassion effectively, how to do it more and better, but that’s got a very different swing to it. I’m also much more interested in people talking about what they do that helps, in whatever way, at whatever level. How do we make things better? How can we be kinder to each other and take better care of each other? Not by poncing about announcing how very, very compassionate we are, that’s for sure.

(And yes, if I was a better sort of person I might know how to feel compassion for the people who have to wave the idea of their own compassion about in this attention seeking way, but I don’t. )

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Looking hard at compassion

  • Rick

    I think that simple kindness really is the key here, since this could allow us the space to be more genuine in our interactions with others. Compassion seems more agenda-driven somehow, and much too lofty and self-reflective to be of any real help,

  • John Davis

    Thanks Nimue….also I thinks it’s important to distinguish between compassion and pity. The former requires engagement whereas the latter doesn’t and is of no help to anyone..John /l\

  • Tracy Kruse

    Such an interesting choice of topic. I actually don’t know anyone who wafts about claiming their compassion, but I do know a few people who live their lives filled with kindness. I wonder too if compassion isn’t just elevated pity, and if what we really want to find is allowance; to accept where someone is with an open heart, no judgement. I think compassion for someone sort of activates a level of judgement as though they are ‘less than’. Isn’t language a tricky thing?

    • Nimue Brown

      I probably read more dodgy new age writing and rubbish on social media, may be the sad truth of this. But yes, the nuance of language for creating power imbalances – always something to poke with a stick I think.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Compassion is what you do, not think. As one has said,it has more to do with kindness in action. Try to treat others as you would wish would be common in the world that you would like to live in. That is the only way o create that world, by living it.

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