What is compassion, opposed to pity, and sentimentality?

“Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart, the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others. There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. Nor is there any denying that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill-will, the more miserable we become. Thus we can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion.”
– His Holiness the Dali Lama

Compassion is the medium through which we will take care of each other and ensure the earth’s survival. As Martin Luther King summed it up: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Because compassion is “heart work” it is easy to confuse it with sentimentality. But compassion is not about feeling sorry for others – it is about feeling together with others. It is being touched by someone else’s pain and realizing that our peace and joy ultimately depends on there being peace and joy for them too. It is therefore also about taking action to alleviate the pain, restore equilibrium, and secure peace and happiness.

Compassion is not without its pitfalls. A compassionate heart open to the pain and suffering of the world can lead to feelings of doubt, despair and impotence. It is easy to be overwhelmed. It is also easy to slip from compassion into pity. But pity, though often equated with compassion, in fact undermines it by creating a power imbalance between donor and receiver. The essence of compassion is sharing one’s heart – “suffering with” – while pity elevates one at the expense of the other and turns the receiver into an object of need or condescension.

The antidote to despair is of course hope, possibly the single most important ingredient for changing the world. Hope allows us to see the inspiring and nurturing forces in the world. It gives us the energy we need to keep going and the sustenance to be continually renewed.

The antidote to pity is to appreciate and nurture people’s gifts. A more genuinely compassionate approach is one that recognizes and mobilizes people’s capacities, skills and gifts.

In the final analysis, the heart of the matter is heart. Compassion is the language of the heart. A compassionate heart does not depend on education. It does not depend on religious, political or philosophical persuasion. It does depend on treating our potential for compassion very gently and tapping into this powerful flow of energy. Our happiness – and the well-being of our communities – depends on it.


This is an abbreviated version of an article that can be found here: http://www.philia.ca/cms_en/page1126.cfm

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