Nearly all my life, I thought I understood what “compassion” meant. Then four or five years ago, I really “got” it. And when I did, I realized that it was a powerful emotion rather than a passive feeling; and one that served my happiness more than I could have imagined.
This is why.
According to one definition, compassion is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” While that is a fine definition, it is not a useful one. Here is another way to understand compassion.
Imagine yourself walking along a country road when suddenly, you come upon a dog. You love dogs and this one looks cute, so you go over to pet it. But as soon as you get close, it barks, bares its teeth, and tries to lash out at you. You are scared, and you back away quickly. As you catch your breath, you find yourself thinking, “what a mean dog! I’m glad it didn’t bite.” You turn to walk away, but as you do, you notice that the dog is injured.
As it whimpers and licks its wounds, you no longer see a “mean” dog. You see an injured animal trying to protect itself from further injury. You understand. You feel deep sympathy and sorrow for the dog’s suffering. You find yourself wanting to help.
That is compassion.
We don’t encounter injured dogs every day, but we encounter injured people many times every day.
Every time someone behaves in a manner that is any “less than loving” (used broadly to encompass feelings of respect and acceptance), they are lashing out as a result of an emotional injury or insecurity. People get angry so that they don’t have to feel their underlying pain. People put others down when they are insecure about themselves. People act controlling when they feel like they have lost control over aspects of their lives. And on and on.
When we are confronted with such behavior, we tend to react negatively. We get angry, defensive, indignant, or hurt in return. We want to get back. We hold grudges. We hold on to pain. And in doing so, we rob ourselves of happiness.
That is where compassion helps.
When I encounter “less than loving” behavior directed at me, I try to see the injury or insecurity in the person I am dealing with. I see that they are lashing out because of it. I try to feel genuine sympathy for their struggle. I even find myself wanting to help. But I don’t always, because it is often not my place or my job to do so. Regardless, just feeling compassion for them allows me to let go of my negativity.
When I do, my peace and happiness is restored. I am free to move on unencumbered. And my compassion becomes a gift to me.