No one likes being stuck in place, mired down in waiting even when sheltering from a terrible, deadly virus. Going nowhere, doing nothing but time, out of touch literally with friends and neighbors – it does not feel like living. Days are ditto marks; some feel like weeks, weeks like months, months like molasses. Yet, time moves on, getting us through, toward who knows what.
We find ourselves living with feelings we’d rather not have – anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, (and I’m not talking politics), loneliness, hunger, loss. to name a few. But there are other feelings most of us need to have these days that are more about others than ourselves – sympathy, empathy and compassion for and with those who are suffering even more.
Sympathy is feeling an other’s anguish, not because we share it but because we see their pain and wish it away. Empathy means sharing an other’s pain because of similar experiences that allow us to feel with rather than simply for an other. Both are reactive and can be helpful in their own ways; but, even though related, they ultimately fall short of what compassion has to offer. Compassion takes them both a giant step further.
Compassion is more than a feeling, more than an awareness of an other’s suffering. A compassionate person is proactive in trying to reduce that suffering: first, by feeling or being present; and second, by doing whatever they can to help an other through their painful ordeal.
Compassion needs to “be there” – genuine, credible and practical. It’s far more than promises or verbal support. When effective, presence is tangible, immediate, and involved. There are no better examples than those on the front lines fighting the current contamination – the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, the medical mystery-solvers desperately working to neutralize this deadly menace, and so many others risking exposure to help the rest of us survive.
Compassion embraces others’ sufferings while focusing on the larger picture –the well-being of all and wanting to make the world a better, safer place – for example, immigrant families fleeing violence and oppression, or those who suffer because of their race or religion. Compassion opens one’s heart to the recognition of our shared humanity and vulnerability. It needs to be beyond politics but should never be beyond politicians or any who believe and say they care about others more than they care about self.
Compassion deserves to be more than just a warm word for those claiming to be compassionate. After all, its heart is passion which always finds its voice in doing. Our feelings tell us we are alive and aware. It is what we do about them that matters.