What Compassion Is

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The other day I was out walking my son in his stroller when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I’d seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. I turned down her request and continued walking, to my chagrin, as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I’d kicked it away without any thought.

I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. As I learned to set boundaries more comfortably, my anger would give way to inconsistency: I’d sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.

Given that at least one study has suggested roughly 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, if somewhat less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I’m asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I’m capable.


Compassion is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires both. Empathy involves responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. (For example, even more than empathy and sympathy, what we want from our doctors is compassion.) The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means:

    1. Giving people what they want. Which is what I used to think—but only because I would routinely find myself practically incapacitated by the thought of disappointing anyone. And though giving people what they want does make them happy, it does so only transiently and usually leaves them unimproved, denying them the motivation to take on growth producing challenges. Also, people quite often want what isn’t good for them (think of the child who wants to watch television instead of doing homework, the gambler who wants to bet his life savings, the alcoholic who wants to drink). If our aim is to help others become happy we must apply our own judgment to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf. Compassion without wisdom is dangerous.
    2. Sacrificing ourselves. Though the size of our compassion is often measured by what we’re willing to sacrifice, we shouldn’t therefore conclude that an act requires sacrifice to qualify as a compassionate one. Acting compassionately may often be inconvenient, but if you find yourself actually sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way you’ve allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less. In fact, sometimes you may care about another person’s happiness but find that other person not only beyond your help but a serious risk to your own happiness. In such cases, the person toward whom you must turn your compassionate gaze is yourself. Detaching with love means removing yourself from another person’s zone of destruction without ceasing to care about them in your heart. It would be far less compassionate to allow two lives to be ruined when one (yours) could be saved.
    3. Being constantly gentle. Many believe being compassionate requires you to adopt a passive, non-violent demeanor and express only loving kindness at all times. Though compassion certainly can be all those things, to be effective, compassion must sometimes be harsh, angry, and forceful. You can’t judge the quality or intent of an action only by the envelope in which it’s mailed. With the intent to increase another person’s happiness as your constant thought, you may sometimes find yourself taking action that paradoxically seems on the surface to lack the very compassion that drives it.
    4. Getting a reward. True compassion expects no reward or recognition. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting either, but when they become the predominant motivation for acting compassionately, you risk shifting your focus from increasing the happiness of others to the gratification of your own ego, which then risks behavior that harms instead of helps.
    5. Liking everyone. There’s no requirement that you like anyone in order to be a compassionate person. You can, in fact, actively dislike someone towards whom you feel great compassion. Being compassionate may mean thinking benevolently about a person despite their flaws, but it doesn’t mean pretending those flaws don’t exist. You don’t have to pretend that people don’t annoy you, nor do you have to open yourself up to establishing personal relationships with people you try to help.


If compassion is none of those things, though, then what is it? I would argue the following:

    1. Unconditional acceptance. Compassion focuses itself only on the potential all people have for good, ignoring everything else. Which isn’t to say compassion deludes itself into thinking all people are good. Just that the capacity to become good can never be destroyed by a thousand evil acts and must therefore always be sought. Which requires—
    2. Endurance. The people for whom you care may refuse to stop suffering. They may rail against you for your efforts and treat you even more shabbily than others who don’t care about them at all. Having true compassion for them is refusing to be defeated by such transient concerns. Even if, as discussed above, you eventually must detach with love, never stop loving them, even when they try to destroy themselves or others.
    3. Action. Another person’s happiness may feel important to you, but if you have the opportunity to take compassionate action yet don’t, your feeling was only ever theoretical.


In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is the term used for a person who seeks to become happy by supporting the happiness of others. To live as a bodhisattva is one of the goals to which I continuously aspire. The reason is simple: the feeling of genuine compassion for another person appears to be one of the most joyful experiences available to human beings. Further, only in the life state of the bodhisattva does it become clear how making the happiness of others the ultimate goal of one’s life entails no personal sacrifice at all. Finally, I don’t believe that indestructible happiness is possible to attain in isolation. How can anyone be truly happy while everyone—or anyone—else around them continues to suffer?

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