Compassion comes from the Latin word compati – to suffer with. It doesn’t just mean sending someone a Hallmark card with a baby pig wiping away a tear on the front and, inside, a message saying how sorry you are. That would be filed under “pity” or “patronising”. With compassion, the first step is to feel the pain of another; the second big step is to be motivated to relieve it. It’s the will to act more than just feeling someone else’s pain – to actually do something about it.
If I’m in pain and you just feel my pain, it’s not going to help my situation. How can you possibly help me if you’re in so much pain from my pain? Now I’ll need to help you to cope with my problem. Also, we sometimes jump at the chance to feel someone else’s pain for the wrong reasons; we don’t want to feel our own so we distract ourselves with theirs.
But when being compassionate, there are no rules. Any time you’re moved to do something to help, that’s enough. Even if you don’t do anything but are by someone’s side and stay present in the midst of their agony, that’s enough.
Yet if we don’t learn to be compassionate to ourselves first, we can’t feel compassion for others. A mother has to teach her child to soothe themselves, but she can only do that if she can soothe herself; otherwise, there will be two people drowning. Most people wince when someone talks about self-compassion. We’re so used to whipping ourselves with our own critical thoughts – “I should have … I didn’t…I’m a loser” – that we’re the last people we would throw a bone of kindness to. Some of us treat our pets better than we treat ourselves.
Once we feel unsafe, there’s no more Mr Nice Guy. We become terrified that, if we show any kindness, we’ll be taken advantage of. That’s why, in our culture, being nice isn’t highly rated. Toughness is in vogue and has been for a very long time. This could be why we have a fascination with other people’s misfortunes, why the videos that get a billion hits on YouTube are usually of a baby falling into a chocolate cake or “kitty gets pushed” (my favourite). In truth, we’ve always loved watching other people’s pain, from gladiatorial contests at the Colosseum to the humiliation and shame we see on The X Factor – which isn’t a million miles from a lion eating a slave. At least the slaves didn’t have to sing.
TV reality shows are based on slinging out the loser and cheering as they endure the walk of shame – out of the building, never to be heard of again. (Unless they humiliate themselves in some new way, such as eating a cockroach on reality TV – that usually guarantees a sure-fire come-back.) Compassion doesn’t win many viewers.
We need to learn how to do compassion. It won’t grow by itself in our “every man/woman for himself/herself” world. If we don’t learn it, we’ll go straight back to our more savage, animalistic behaviours. Don’t forget that millions of years ago we evolved from reptiles. ( I’m sorry if there are Mormons reading this, but it’s true.)
I was in Cape Town recently to teach mindfulness to young girls from townships who had been badly abused. As soon as I started, I sensed that they were uneasy and the last thing they wanted to do was observe their thoughts. Mindfulness, in my opinion, isn’t appropriate for severe trauma. When the trauma is resolved, or has eased off, you can try it. Otherwise, it can reopen the wound.
I decided to change tack and asked if any of them had ever had a makeover. They hadn’t, but excitement ricocheted through the room. I came back the next day with my makeup. There they all were, lined up and totally focused, any sign of agitation gone. Here was something that made them feel important, as if they mattered. When I did their lipstick, I’m sure that touching their lips would have normally flipped them out. This was probably the first time someone had touched them without taking advantage of their innocence. They all took selfies and I could tell they didn’t just look but felt beautiful, maybe for the first time. I don’t do a lot of compassion in my life, but this really gave me a hit of happiness. I didn’t realise it was so easy.