Compassion is a feeling of deep identification with a person who has been stricken with some sort of difficult feeling or situation. But that’s not the end of true compassion. Compassion carries with it a desire to act to help alleviate or soothe another, whether it be their feelings or their situation or both. The opposite of compassion is indifference, the lack of a desire to act to help.
Empathy is similar, but is more an intellectual identification with a person in a difficult situation; we identify because we’ve been there, and we know, we think we can understand what that person might be going through. The opposite of empathy is a feeling of separateness from another person, and I use the word “another” purposely, because it implies that we perceive our self as ”other”, or separate, from that person. Lack of empathy is a feeling of emotional, physical, social, spiritual and/or psychological disconnection from another person who appears to be in some sort of distress.
Civility is an act of politeness or courtesy.
It seems to me that civility, which we sorely need more of, cannot happen without a combination of compassion and empathy. But for that to occur, we must first nurture compassion within self, toward self. Just as we cannot love another person, before first loving self, we cannot have compassion or empathy and behave with civility toward others, unless we first nurture those things within, directed toward self. Someone once told me that forgiveness begins with self-forgiveness; that the ability to forgive an “other” is in direct correlation with the ability to forgive self. I think those are wise words.
If I was an “other” person than my self, if I had moved through that other life, dealt with exactly the same situations, had been dealt the same hand of cards, I would be that person. I would make the same choices and have the same feelings as that person. The understanding of this concept holds the key to the ability to have empathy or compassion, and to behave with civility toward those other than self. And it’s strongly connected to what we know as the Golden Rule.
Many years ago, on the first day of the first quarter of a new college school year, I noticed a young woman leaving my classroom ahead of me. She’d hardly spoken a word during class, and as we took turns introducing ourselves to other class members, I noticed that her cheeks seemed to be on fire with scarlet, her voice so faint that it was almost a whisper, and she’d kept her gaze trained on her desktop as she spoke. I felt so badly for her, because I, too, had great difficulty speaking in large groups. I, also, was painfully introverted at that time in my life. Her discomfort burned viscerally through me, as I listened to her speak. I wanted to make the pain go away for her.
As the class period came to an end, and students spilled out the doors from the room, this young woman straggled a bit behind. I followed. Her shoulders were a bit stooped, and she hung her head so that her beautiful, long hair fell like a curtain, hiding her face. I moved a bit more quickly to catch up to her. Her sense of being an “other”, of being separate, seemed to scream out as she moved across the tarmac. As I reached her side, I noticed she looked away, ever so slightly.
“I’m Janet,” I said, smiling at her hair, because I couldn’t see her face.
She slowed, almost to a stop, and gave me a cautious, sidelong, almost deer-in-the-headlights look. She didn’t smile. “Hullo,” she responded, and her head lifted ever-so-slightly, but she kept her eyes averted.
“Where’s your next class?” I asked, still smiling.
“Um,” she began. She stared at the ground and struggled, with one hand, to uncrumple a wadded-up piece of paper. “It’s, um, Introduction to Women’s Studies. Actually, I’m not sure where it is.” She wanted to ask for guidance, I knew, but somehow she couldn’t.
“Wow! That’s where I’m going, too!” I said. “Wanna walk with me?”
She turned and faced me directly, for the first time. She seemed relieved. “That’d be great,” she said. And she smiled. ”Thanks.”
Later in the day, one of my instructors approached me. “I saw you earlier today.”
“When?” I asked with a slight frown, because I had no idea what she was talking about.
“When you asked Kathy – the new student in first period – when you asked if she wanted to walk with you.”
“Oh,” I replied. “She just seemed so frightened.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I’ve been alone in foreign places, and it’s not a good feeling.”
My instructor gave me a warm, yet somewhat stern, smile. “It’s called empathy,” she said. She turned and started to walk away, but abruptly stopped and turned back to me. “It’s very rare, so don’t ever lose it.” It was an order. With that, she marched away.
I’ve never forgotten those words, though I must admit I’ve not always behaved in a compassionate, empathetic, civil way. But I keep trying. Because I think those are things that take practice to cultivate and nurture and maintain. The most beautiful garden won’t stay that way if we don’t keep pulling out the weeds, watering, feeding and pruning, and giving it the care it needs to thrive. Empathy, compassion and civility are amazingly infectious things that flourish and grow in ripples, moving outward to affect many others, stemming from just one, simple act of kindness. I don’t know this, but I’d wager a bet that Kathy did the same thing for someone else, at some point in her life, after that day. At least, I’d like to think so. Because I believe with all of my heart that each of us can and does make a difference, and together, it’s a phenomenon.
© Janet Mitchell, April, 2012