Updated: Mar 8
Get IN your feelins' to save the world.
Compassion is the superpower we all need right now. We are witnessing an incredible moment in human history. Just as we look at the Civil Rights Movement and Women's Suffrage with awe, and wonder how we would have responded, future generations will read about the year 2020 and ponder the same thing. What will you tell your grandchildren about the role you played in this moment? How will they share your story with their class, their friends, their co-workers, their kids?
Man, look. Folks out here refusing to wear masks with aaallllll the science and data that it helps to protect others, reduce community spread, and flatten the curve. American citizens are deputizing themselves, believing it is perfectly lawful to shoot people for jogging in "their" neighborhood. Every week a new video or image surfaces, revealing how police abuse their authority and harass, injure and kill Black people, Latinx people, and people in minority groups.
I can't believe I'm doing this. The only quote that seems appropriate comes from The Black Eyed Peas: "Where is the love?" Do you see what we have come to? Just kidding. I like those guys.
We have a compassion problem.
What is compassion?
The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with. So the original meaning of compassion is "to suffer with." When we are compassionate toward one another, we are so connected to what they are going through that we feel it, too.
Now, the current definition of compassion is a "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." Experiencing compassion is to realize a noticing, experience feeling, and take an action connected to what is happening for someone else.
Emanuel Kant says, "Compassion is the root of morality."
If we ain't suffering with one another, cultivating a consciousness of others' distress and a desire to reduce suffering, what are we doing, guys?
Compassion vs Empathy
What is the difference between compassion and empathy? Ok, this is a good question.
Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
I love the article "Four Reasons Why Compassion is Better For Humanity Than Empathy," by Rasmus Hougaard for Forbes.com. In it, Hougaard explores the differences between the two, saying, "Empathy is an important, foundational emotion for human connection. It is the spark that can ignite compassion." He goes on to explore how mistaking empathy for compassion can be dangerous, because empathy is an internal awareness, usually random and reserved for those closest to us, and compassion is a more deliberate external response.
While I believe that both concepts are important and helpful in healing our collective ills, I agree that a distinction and a relational correlation should be made. Feeling for someone who is in pain precedes, but is not the same as, taking steps to actually relieve their suffering.
It is the difference between seeing a news story that breaks your heart and "Tsk-Tsking" at the state of the world and doing some research on how you can give, serve or help the people who are living the story.
That sounds overwhelming with all the tasks associated with being a leader in our own lives, right? I understand. Here is how I believe we can begin to integrate compassion in our lives without --quite literally--taking on the weight of the world.
Compassion starts with the self. Self-Compassion is the ability to turn our focus inward and acknowledge our own distress and suffering. Often times we flip the Golden Rule; we don't treat others as we want to be treated, we treat others the way we treat ourselves. If we don't have a habit of being compassionate to ourselves, well, the concept of pouring compassion on others feels unnatural and --dare I say--unnecessary.
When I work with individuals and groups the first stop we make is understanding how memories and internal narratives are present teachers and guides. We create time to revisit the child-like self and give compassion to that kid before doing any work.
A quick way to do this is to check in with your most vivid childhood memory. How can you speak to that child with compassion around that memory? How can you acknowledge any pain or suffering that child experienced and speak to them with understanding? Is there an action you can take that would relieve that child's pain right now? This action could be your favorite snack, taking a nap, a walk or doing something playful, or playing your favorite song. Start small and increase your self-compassion over time. Notice what comes up for you as you even consider doing this. Some of us are used to being compassionate with ourselves, however many of us are in the "it is what it is" camp of not tending to our own wounding. Try a little self-compassion today.
Compassion Toward Others
Now that we've gotten a taste of how it feels to receive compassion, we have a framework for what other folks will experience when we reach out to them. Take a look at your relationships.
Who in your life is suffering and how? Pick one person, a person that does not represent a trigger or a pain point for you. (Remember, start small.) What is the actual situation they are in? How can you name their pain? What are they feeling, that you know of? What are they losing? Now, how can you take inventory of your resources to bring some relief to them? We have so many resources. We have time, attention, energy, talent, relationships, belongings and money. We can use any combination of our resources to relieve someone's pain. Some people just need to know that they are not crazy for feeling how they feel. Others need help and would benefit from introductions and connections. Some folks do need financial help, or a physical item that would be a huge blessing.
Now bring together your analysis of what they have indicated that they need and what you have within your capacity to give. Then, give it! See how it feels to actively decrease someone else's suffering. If you notice some resistance, notice that. It may be good to go back to self-compassion.
The results of compassion are all around us. Culture shifts. Laws change. Policies are reviewed. We appoint new leaders that are qualified. Human beings have equal opportunities to evolve our cultures and grow the quality of life with their gifts. Our sense of connectedness and trust in the good of humanity is restored and grows.
The C. R. O. W. N. Act, created in 2019, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a true "act" of compassion. The mission of this act is to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools. Businesses disrupted their own productivity and caused pain and trauma by sending women home because of their natural hairstyles. California led the way by becoming the first state to ban natural hair discrimination, followed by six other states.
Can you imagine being penalized for wearing your hair as it grows naturally, being humiliated and losing valuable work time as a result (this is empathy)? If you can, maybe you can show kindness and support to someone who has experienced this kind of discrimination today (this is compassion).
When we stay home, wear masks, and hold our institutions accountable, we are compassionate. When we refuse to allow our fellow Americans to be disrupted, abused, and traumatized by speaking up, voting, and taking our business elsewhere, we are compassionate. We all have some power to relieve the suffering of others.
How Can I Grow My Compassion?
Understanding your personality type is so helpful in assessing what you bring to the people in your world as a contribution. This is the thing; sometimes, our very presence and energy is the gift that people need, and the way to understand what more we can do!
If you have some curiosity around your current compassion levels, take the Compassionate Leadership Assessment, and see where you land!
At the end of the day, the only takeaway that I want you to DEFINITELY leave this space with is this:
We are better when we take care of ourselves and each other.
Danielle Fanfair is a teacher, writer and speaker who helps high-impact professionals go from Confusion to Clarity about who they truly are, with a passion for well-being, diversity & inclusion, self-understanding and skills-building. Work with Danielle by clicking here.