What Is Compassion?

Have a little compassion. We’ve all heard that expression. But what does it really mean? When I ask that question at my presentations, I get answers that you would expect—empathy, feelings for others, kindness and understanding. Though these answers are all correct, let me tell you what compassion means to me. 

One evening when I was giving a talk in my local library, I was telling a story about a woman on my block who would never acknowledge me when our paths crossed. I would always give a friendly wave hello as I passed her during my walks or if she came by my house as I was doing yard work. Each time she would look away or put her head down, averting her eyes from my direction. I couldn’t understand why in the world this woman always ignored my friendly hellos. After all, I was being friendly. “What is the matter with her?” I asked, sounding somewhat annoyed. And then a woman in the second row raised her hand and quietly offered, “Maybe she is shy.” 

It was at that moment that I got a lesson in the real meaning of compassion! Here I was, giving a talk on happiness and exhibiting a total lack of compassion. Sure I was being friendly to my neighbor, but I also was holding an expectation in that friendliness. That evening, I learned that compassion is allowing others to be who they want to be. Compassion is not expecting or demanding that others be who we want them to be. Compassion is not judging the actions of others according to our standards and values. Compassion is cutting others some slack instead of criticizing them. Compassion is not a feeling of superiority. It is the realization and acknowledgement of the dignity that each one of us possesses as a human being. It is a basic understanding that every one of us is doing his best to figure things out. We are all on our own path through life. Compassion is the conscious decision to send out love to all those who cross our path. 

What a load off the shoulders! We don’t have to be the judgment police! We don’t have to get upset when people do things differently than the way we would like them to. It is extremely liberating to allow others to be who they want to be. When we are compassionate to others, we bring simple happiness to ourselves.