What is compassion?

Last night, I hosted and co-moderated an interfaith panel discussion. Mostly, the conversation centered around compassion. How do we know what it is? Why is it sometimes so hard to live with compassion?

In preparation for the discussion, my co-facilitator took one of my questions in our Google Doc, something like “why is it difficult to be compassionate as it relates to the shadow?” and worded it as such, “what is the shadow side of compassion?” This confused me. I couldn’t figure out what the shadow side to compassion could possibly be. How can you be too nice, too caring? Sure, we could get into a conversation about the importance of setting boundaries, self-care, etc. But, in terms of pure, unadulterated compassion, I wasn’t sure what its shadow might be. Besides, that wasn’t really the question I wanted to ask.

In the beginning of the panel discussion, Father Michael Holleran, a Catholic priest and Zen teacher, explained the etymology of the word compassion. It means “to suffer with.” When you see someone in pain, whether physically, psychically, or otherwise, you feel their pain and want to help heal it. The other day, a friend said, “True compassion is seeing someone kick a dog and feeling sorry for the person kicking the dog.” What could have happened to this poor person that would cause them to hurt an innocent animal? In other words, you are aware of this person’s suffering. When I hold this image in my mind, I can physically feel the sadness or anger of the person kicking the dog. I know how it feels to feel so hurt that I lash out at someone else so that they’ll hurt, too.

Oh. This is the shadow side of compassion. When I cause someone to “suffer with” meI am pulling them into my pain. I want connection. I want to not feel alone in my pain. It’s not fair that I’m the one hurting, so you should hurt, too! I did this to my family when I was young, I’ve done it to friends and strangers alike, I still do it with my sweet boyfriend. It is said that hurt people hurt people. I think of people in places like Israel and Palestine (as one of many examples) who are caught in this constant returning of aggression and violence instead of recognition that the other side is in just as much pain as the they themselves are. It’s so easy to fall into an endless cycle of trauma this way. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

If I, a supposedly mature, emotionally-balanced, and aware person with very little psychic trauma can’t stop myself from lashing out in anger when my ego gets bruised, how is someone who has suffered the damages of war and terror supposed to keep themselves from turning their pain outward?

Compassion is not so simple. It really requires an ability to reach outward, recognize the humanity in another (an other) person, and connect.



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