Friday, 21 May 2010

Compassion with a Capital 'C'

Compassion is something I thought I knew quite a lot about.  I give lots of second, third and fourth chances, I almost never hold a grudge, I mutter a prayer when my cats bring me dead mice, I ALWAYS give money to buskers (street musicians for you non-Brits) and I USUALLY buy The Big Issue from homeless guys.  This is fairly generic stuff, as is getting a lump in the throat when watching TV charity appeals for the latest tragedy on the globe (be it a tsunami, earthquake, or famine), or welling up at the plight of abused animals, neglected orphans and casualties of war.  In most cases you can do your bit without leaving your sofa or really getting involved - that's compassion with a small 'c.'  But what I'm interested in is compassion with a capital 'C." Let me explain.

Recently I was complaining to a trusted advisor about the unthinking behavior of a loved-one.  I expected to receive some sympathy or commiseration, but instead they asked,  "Can you feel compassion for the wounded part of them that drives them to behave like that?"  I had never considered this before.  Generally speaking I see the distasteful behavior of those around me as character flaws at best (including my own) or stupidity and meanness at worst (got to hold my own hand up here as well.)  Did I feel compassion?  No, I most certainly did not.

But over time, that question began to work its magic - my inner landscape shifting to accommodate it.   I spent an evening with someone who couldn't stop drinking and I wondered what old hurts might be so bad that they needed to be numbed with alcohol?  I saw a woman shouting at her kid in the grocery store and wondered about the inner pain that might be fueling her rawness.  I pondered the defensiveness of a friend - what makes her so vulnerable yet rigid?  I felt my heart ache for the kinds of on-the-ground, up-close-and-personal types of old wounds that fuel my own short fuse, my judgment, my fear.

True compassion with a capital 'C' will change not only the way you regard your own pain, but also that of the alcoholic in your life, the belligerent neighbor, the hooded youths hanging out on the corner, or the undependable friend.  And it also means being willing to be honest with them - to trust that they can handle the truth and consequences of their behavior.  Big 'C' compassion might be tough love in one case, or just a knowing hug in another. You can't do that with a victim of a natural disaster. 

This is foreign territory for me, but I'm beginning to get my bearings.  It is a landscape you are familiar with?  I invite you to explore this space for yourself - let your heart be your compass.  For as the Buddha said, "In separateness lies the world's great misery, but in compassion lies the world's true strength."


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Someone put it this way to me: When someone speaks to you unkindly, remember that's the voice they hear in their own heads all day long. I believe we all do the best we can, and that the harm we cause arises out of our own pain. It's not an excuse, but it does warrant compassion.

  2. Wow! What an insightful post.
    Putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. That's the advice Atticus Finch has for his daughter in "To kill a mockingbird". Not an easy task at all.