The Compassion Property

I like to think of things in concrete terms, in amounts I can see, measure, reflect, and observe.  I feel more assured that way, more confident of reality.  “If I have 10 apples and I give 3 to Suzy, how many apples do I have left?”

That works great when you’re building bridges and counting apples, but when you’re relating to one another and when you’re practicing your faith, these metrics cease to exist.  Unfortunately, all too often we try to make things like love have a concrete properties like matter.

The thing is, the properties of love, or a specific way to show love by understanding someone’s suffering, compassion, is not something that gets smaller as we give it out. 

And the inverse is also true. More simply, acknowledging the pain of someone else, of another situation, doesn’t take away from other pain that exists.

It sounds so simple, but do we really understand what that means? There should be no fear of showing compassion, because it doesn’t take away from what we’re going through. Sometimes when we get trapped in our effort to compete and have THE WORST PAIN or the MOST difficult situation, we fail to reach others in a compassionate way.  People do that to people trying to have children: “Oh, infertility is exactly like this problem in life” or “At least you don’t have[ this problem]!  That would be soo much harder”. And moms do it as well, “Oh, at least you don’t have [x number of children, more than you actually have]”  or, “Having multiples is so much harder!” or “And your husband has normal hours!”  Maybe there are more challenging situations and maybe you’re also going through something so we can bond by the fact that “life is hard”, but I wonder why we always feel the need to bring that up that the exact moment we’re talking about a different pain, a totally unrelated one?

That is not compassion. 

Compassion is understanding the suffering of others and wanting to alleviate it, not merely identifying and seeing yourself in them because you have had similar sufferings, although that is an understandable first step. If it stops there, its merely an immature version of self-love, even if it does come from a good place of trying to relate to others.  But we are called to love others as well, because of their dignity and likeness of God, not because we see ourselves and our specific experiences in them. Its about ultimately coming to a place where you meet them in their suffering regardless of your own experiences. 

It seems like so many of us have this fear of meeting each other in a place of suffering to show compassion.  As if we think that that will take away from the hard things we are experiencing, instead of understanding we have an immense power to help each other through it. Maybe its not so malicious as much as a fear of exhaustion, of taking on too many burdens in addition to our own.

But as anyone who cares for different people in their family knows, whether it be children or grandparents or in-laws, love does not divide as you give it to many people, it multiples.  Filled up and poured out, so that we may be filled up again.

I think we need to start thinking about compassion the same way.  There is no sense to be frugal with compassion. Pouring out love and compassion to each other can only help each of us with our burdens, not take away from what we’re each going through. 

7 thoughts on “The Compassion Property

  1. I love what you’ve said here. We are all going through difficult things. We have all faced pain. Trying to compare pain is the opposite of compassion, though it often masquerades as sympathy. Very well said.

  2. My spiritual director and I were just discussing this – that we cannot every truly say “I know how you feel” to someone else. All we can do is be there, offer our love and prayers.

    I heard a homily at the beginning of Lent about compassion and mercy – I don’t remember all the details, but I believe the priest said that to have true compassion is to have mercy and to have mercy means “to suffer with.” I think you’ve described this beautifully.

  3. I really like this post. It makes me wonder why it’s so hard to show compassion (me included). I know I’ve been on the receiving end of non-compassion when talking about infertility with others. Deep down I really want others to acknowledge that I’m going through something difficult…maybe any discussion of pain reminds people of their own and brings out these feelings of wanting to be affirmed? It’s definitely something to work on once you realize you’re not always good at it.

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