What exactly is compassion? Do you really know? Why do some people see compassion as a weakness? When I was a child, I was often told that I was too soft. I needed to be a harder person or the world would swallow me up. I was weak, and needed to be stronger. If I helped people they would take advantage of me. I appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. They didn’t want me to get hurt. Life lessons are to be lived, that means you will get hurt. That’s life. Later in life I learned that compassion takes courage. It is a strength, not a weakness. In a world where we are literally trying to dodge negativity, how does a person reject self-interest, greed and cruelty.
There are television series that show human compassion. We are touched and marvel at the drive and desire of these humans who put themselves out for all to see. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, to be judged for their compassion. We also see stories of animals showing compassion to other animals. Some that would be natural enemies. Why do humans and other earthling species express compassion? Why doesn’t the instinct of self-interest squash something some may refer to as weak or trivial? Let’s take a look at it.
Compassion is often times confused with empathy or altruism. Here are the broad stroke differences; empathy is the visceral response to the suffering of another living being. You mirror and experience the emotions of the being who is suffering. Altruism is an action that benefits others. There is overlapping here. However, they are not to be confused. Is compassion something that we learn as children or is it a natural instinct? There is research that shows that shows compassion is a natural instinct to all life.
There were studies conducted that show that children to young to understand compassion, demonstrated compassion when they noticed another child in need of help. They even circumvented obstacles to do so.* Charles Darwin coined the term “survival of the kindest.” He proposed and vehemently argued that “the greater strength of the social or material instinct than that of any other instinct or motive.” He believed that compassion was the strongest instinct of living beings. You can see the manifestation of this when you see reports of animals helping one another is crisis. Or human beings demonstrating compassion on a large scale. For instance, with the fires in Australia, there was a news story of a mother fox, providing milk to infant kholas. ** Or the story of Keisha Thomas who literally threw her body on top of a Klans member during a Women’s Rights protest. Not only was she obviously a young African American woman, but she’s a woman. This man was wearing a Confederate t-shirt, and has SS tattoo. Yet, her drive for compassion overwhelmed her own sense of safety when she protected him from a mob. ***
So why do people overlook someone struggling to carry their groceries? Or shake their heads at someone begging for money or food? I believe that this happens because their natural instinct to help is buried beneath self-interest, greed and judgement. So many people have lost touch with themselves. And why wouldn’t they? Our society is an instant gratification, quick fix, a pill will solve everything society. Greed and self-interest are in front of our faces daily. Despite the fact that giving and showing compassion has so many health benefits, we ignore it. The people or animals that express compassion are looked at with awe. Sometimes followed by statements such as, “I could never do that?” As a vegan/vegetarian I’m accustomed to people asking me why I choose not to eat meat, followed by “I can’t do that. I love bacon too much.” Again, self interest is paramount in these examples. I’m not telling you, you should be a vegetarian, I would just like for you to think about why you choose not to.
Let’s be frank, compassion makes you vulnerable. You may be hurt or rejected if you show compassion. No one likes to be vulnerable or possibly rejected. Compassion takes a tremendous amount of courage to express. To me it is the most powerful quality to wield. Because, if a person has the courage to express compassion, they are certainly not afraid to express love. Are you compassionate? Are you compassionate only when it suits you? Or are you unbiased in your compassion and spread it evenly? Why don’t you show compassion?
*Max Planck Institute, Germany