This is the second in a series on widening our perspective, and this one is about compassion. Compassion, and it’s sister Empathy, are synonyms that circle around this idea: putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy means feeling what someone else feels. So if they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re scared, you’re scared. Children are often very naturally empathic toward their parents, which is why if a child is upset, if their parent can regulate their own emotions well enough to stay calm, the child will calm down faster. It’s because the child is literally feeling the parents emotion more than their own. So, empathy has an upside: being able to deeply experience an emotion someone else is experiencing. And empathy has a downside: maybe not being able to control which of other people’s emotions you want to experience.
Compassion is a crayon of a slightly different color. Compassion means understanding what someone else feels. If you compare those definitions, empathy is an act of feeling. Compassion is an act of thinking. When I speak with someone about their chronic pain, I can have great compassion for them, because I remember what the worst of my migraines felt like, how even on the good days, there was unrelenting pain that I just had to live with, how I had to rearrange my schedule time and again, how I had to semi-permanently adjust my expectations about what I could do and how much I could do it, how it affected my relationships, my sense of self worth, the whole shebang. I can think about what that is like and think about how much it sucks and think of my own memories of it without actually reliving the feeling of it right now. And even though their chronic pain isn’t about a migraine, I can generalize. And because I’m a compassionate person, and because I’ve lived long enough to experience a great variety of suffering, when trying to be compassionate about or with someone else, I can typically reach back and find some sort of piece of my own suffering to generalize so I can better understand how they are feeling.
Now, a caveat.
Just because I understand (or think I understand) what someone else is feeling, it doesn’t mean I really know what they’re going through.
First, feelings are subjective. Two people can say “I’m sad, and my sadness is a 7 of 10,” and they can still mean very different things about how much that sadness is affecting them. Feelings are subjective and language fails us when we need it most.
Second, the brain encodes situations differently – what ends up being traumatic for one person is just another forgettable day to another person who may have encountered the exact same thing as the first person. And so what ended up being the repeated traumas of my own childhood, you might subjectively look at and think, ‘really? It bothers you that much? You’re counting that as a trauma?’ (Yup, it really does, and yup, I am.)
And despite the fact that feelings are subjective, and despite the fact that our brain encodes things differently, we can still exercise compassion, and build compassion. And more compassion displayed to the world will slowly widen our own perspective.
Here are three ways that I know that build compassion: First, volunteering. Second, practicing non-judgementalism. Third, listening to someone’s story.
The first exercise is one designed to get you out into the world. Volunteer for something. Donate your labor or your efforts to an organization or an effort, knowing you’re doing so without compensation. The very act, especially if you’ve never done it before, or you’ve not done it in a while, will get ‘things’ bubbling to the surface. What kind of things? Old assumptions, old judgments, old habits that maybe you didn’t know were still there. And when they bubble up, it’s okay! You’re not a bad person to wonder why there are so many people at the food pantry, or why there aren’t more people building this house with you. But keep volunteering. Do it every week for six weeks. Or every month for two years. Or spend an entire vacation just volunteering some each day. Work through the initial resistance and see what your mindset is like on the other side. I guarantee it will be different, and your perspective will have widened.
The second exercise is one designed to get you into your own head. See if you can catch yourself the next time you judge someone else’s actions to be at fault. Catch yourself, label the thought you’re having as ‘judgemental’, and ask yourself instead ‘I wonder why…’ This exercise isn’t meant to excuse bad behavior, not at all. It’s only meant to widen our perspective by thinking about what someone else was feeling.
An example of this might be someone doing something dangerous in traffic as you’re driving. Catch yourself in the moment that you have a negative reaction. Note it as judgemental. Then ask yourself, ‘I wonder why that person did that?’ The answer might be obvious: They were in a hurry, or they didn’t see me in their blind spot. But that answer opens up a little space to be compassionate. Because perhaps you can remember a moment you were in a hurry, or a time you didn’t thoroughly check your blind spot and did something dangerous because of it. And suddenly you’re having compassion for the person in traffic that you might otherwise have just called an idiot and been mad at.
The third exercise is one designed to get you listening to other people. There are classes you can take on how to be a better listener, or how to do active listening, and those can be helpful here. Regardless, if you’re not used to hearing people’s stories, start small with your friends or parents, or even your siblings. You can ask them questions like,
- What was it like …growing up? …growing up as the oldest? …growing up back then?
- What were your parents like …when they were angry? …when you were little? …when you succeeded/failed?
- What were your friends like …when you were little? …when you were a teenager?
The questions are less important than getting someone to really talk about what their life has been like, and it can be very eye opening.
In my own life, it has been an exercise in compassion-building to reflect on the abusive childhood of someone who hurt me extensively. It in no way excuses their behavior, and I bear no responsibility to help them fix their life. And yet I have significant details on the way this person was abused from a very young age, all the way to their majority when they left that household, and it really does explain a lot of their behavior toward me and others. It completely answers any questions I might have had about why I was hurt. And as I deal appropriately and completely with my own brokenness, I can keep their own brokenness firmly in view. (In total honestly, I’ve experienced the full range of anger and rage concerning this person, but you know, it hasn’t in the last several decades turned to bitterness or hate, because how can I hate someone who was so abused as a child, and who then as an adult only recreated the world they knew? I understand their feelings, even if I don’t wish to excuse them, and even if I think their actions were atrocious.)
So there are my three exercises for building compassion and widening perspective: volunteering, non-judgementalism, and listening to people’s stories. Which one of these will you try? Or do you do something else to regularly build compassion in your life? If you feel up to it, share it with me in the comments below. :)