The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.
— American Heritage® Dictionary
A feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it.
— Collins English Dictionary
Both empathy and compassion are vitally important to have and maintain a functioning society in which peace, prosperity and happiness can be enjoyed by all members of that society.
When reviewing the definitions, you’ll notice the progression from empathy to compassion. If there isn’t empathy, there will not be any compassion. It all starts with empathy. We must develop a strong sense of empathy before we can demonstrate true compassion. Let’s look at the specific progression based on the definitions provided:
Empathy allows us to emotionally and intellectually “walk in another person’s shoes” and share their pain, suffering, anxiety and hopelessness.
Though demonstrating empathy and support to a person who is hurting is vitally important, our actions are passive in nature. I like to think of demonstrating empathy as a deep emotional hug.
Compassion includes empathy but takes it one step further — by wanting to alleviate the pain, suffering, anxiety and hopelessness. We will do what is within our ability to alleviate the other person’s suffering. Compassion necessitates assertive action.
There are two types of compassion — biased and unbiased (universal).
Examples of biased compassion are a mother’s love for her child, the concern for co-workers, the bond between a close friend and the relationship between club members. In each of these examples, a bond or relationship is present. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to show compassion to these groups of people. We know them, and we have at least a casual relationship with them.
We demonstrate unbiased compassion when show compassion to strangers or people we don’t like. While it may not be earned, it is freely given for the benefit of humanity. Unbiased compassion is what will conquer the hate, prejudice, distrust, anxiety, inequality and injustice of in our communities.
Unbiased (universal) compassion, therefore, is directed not at people’s behavior but at the people themselves because they are a human being.
One can’t help but be concerned for our world today. From the COVID-19 pandemic and government responses, to world-wide protests, to the mass migration of refugees, to climate change; it seems that distrust and chaos rules. The world is in need of our empathy and compassion. It starts with me and you. Let’s get to it. Let’s set the example.
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