A young mother who lost her child in the Newtown shooting last December chose to act with compassion in the aftermath of this devastating tragedy. She lit 28 candles at a conference to honor all the victims, including the 20-year old boy who gunned down the children and his mother. She sees compassion as the only way to help her family move beyond this overwhelming loss.
Courage comes from the root word cor, which is Latin for heart. Many people associate courage with displays of physical strength, forcefulness, even violence, while categorizing compassion as soft, wimpy or passive. But to me, courage is at the core of compassion. How easy is it to slip into a vengeful, hostile response without thinking twice about our actions when hurt or frustrated? Thus, slowing down to consider others before impulsively acting requires a massive amount of inner strength and courage.
What is compassion?
First and foremost, compassion is a capacity we all possess, not something granted only to the lucky few blessed with Mother Theresa’s genes. We can feel compassion in the wake of our own—or someone else’s—suffering. Experiencing another’s pain as if it were our own motivates us to take caring action to alleviate their suffering. This might come in the form of lending a listening ear to someone in need or volunteering to take home a stranger stranded alongside the road. Researchers have shown that compassion lights up the pleasure center of the brain, so we can literally turn pain on its head when we exercise compassion. You see, turning toward suffering, rather than resisting it, dampens the stress response in the body by engaging the calming pathway of the nervous system. Compassion, then, can liberate us from the prolonged effects of emotional and physical pain.
No one said a compassionate response is easy. In fact, when we are triggered by challenges, big or small, it’s easy to fly off the handle, curse, seek revenge, the list goes on. For example, when someone rides your bumper, your instinct may be to slow way down and murmur to yourself, “I’ll show you.” Or, if your neighbor’s dog barks at all hours of the night, you may think, “Can’t they get their stuff together and take care of their dog?” It’s perfectly normal to feel frustrated or annoyed when things aren’t going our way, but the question is: How long does the anger linger? Do we continue to fuel the frustration with condemnation and criticism? Or do we recognize the struggle in ourselves and decide to take compassionate action instead? The good news is, you’ll encounter multiple chances to exercise compassion on a daily basis—with your children, neighbors and mates on the roadway—and the more you choose this response, the stronger and more instinctual this capacity will become.
A common question I hear about compassion is, how will it make me stronger or more resilient? Let’s go back to the barking dog scenario for a moment—a story I’m (not so) happy to claim as my own. When we first moved back to our neighborhood, I was pretty livid about the feisty black dog barking at all hours of the night. I was also annoyed with the dog’s family. I wondered why they didn’t walk or train their dog properly. My little tirade didn’t end there. After our walks, I would tell my husband about what we had to deal with again. I would even start thinking (and occasionally cursing) about the dog before our walk. The sad part is, the bitterness and accusations only fueled my upset and made it harder to resolve the issue skillfully—not so much a recipe for resilience.
Then one day I came across a talk on compassion by Pema Chodron, a world-renowned meditation teacher. Pema closed with this poem.
Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
The last line hit me on a visceral level. “I have no idea what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” It made me realize I hadn’t stopped to consider what might be going on with the family, including how taxed they might be for time or money. Nor did I consider they may have rescued the dog out of the kindness of their hearts and at least gave it a chance to live a better life. You want to know the crazy part, I could literally add the words “just like our family” to the accusations I made about our neighbors and see we’re not all that different. Our family has had our own struggles with dogs, time, and money.
Once I took this perspective, I felt less resentment toward our neighbors and their dog. Can you say liberating!? Suddenly, I had space to consider how I really wanted to be in relationship to this situation. A starting point was coming to terms with my own frustration and fear—and all the hostile thoughts that continued to fuel my feelings. Only then could I decide how to respond. With less of an emotional charge, it occurred to me that I could actually introduce myself to the neighbors, maybe even try to catch glimpses of things I appreciated about their dog and family.
This is a long way of showing you, opportunities abound us to express compassion toward ourselves and others—from everyday adversities to tragic events. Like we saw with the Newtown mother’s example, compassion is courage in action. The willingness to step outside ourselves in the presence of pain is not easy, but the potential of compassion to spark healing and transformation on the inside—and all around us—makes it worth the courageous fight.