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The many forms of compassion

By Maria Mostyka

What is compassion anyway? It is hard to imagine an easier question. We think we do know what it is, and we know how to be compassionate — be good and kind, help someone in need. It is also the basis of the Golden Rule: “Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated” or “Treat others as you would like others to treat you.” Compassion is often associated with religious doctrines, and observing the Golden Rule makes you a good (insert your religion here) follower and, generally, a good person.

While all this is undoubtedly true, compassion is more than that. It is the ability to be fully present with the other person. It is the willingness to let yourself be seen — to show a glimpse of that protected and armored “you,” those raw thoughts and emotions. To be compassionate is to cherish the present moment and to stay with the suffering or distress of the other person.

In order to be compassionate, you have to make a genuine connection and you have to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is the core of compassion. The core and the stumbling block as well. The difficulty arises because we often imagine ourselves doing an act of kindness for a stranger. Why would I open up to a stranger? The good deed is done, and we walk away feeling nice about ourselves. And hey, I did help that fallen lady get up, I did volunteer at the soup kitchen and I did donate to charity.

While these acts are immensely valuable, when we are deeply compassionate, we are willing to be vulnerable in order to truly see and feel the suffering of the other person in his or her most distressful moment. Moreover, compassion is something that should extend to all of our relationships. Surprisingly, it can be hard to be compassionate with the people we love precisely because we need to be uncomfortably honest and open in order to make a stronger connection, to have a “me-too” or an “I-feel-you” moment, to face the fear of messing up the relationship. Yet, without this raw openness and vulnerability, it is very hard to make a connection and be deeply compassionate.

The hardest act of compassion is the one toward ourselves. Self-compassion. Unfortunately, people often confuse self-compassion with selfishness: self-compassion is not selfishness. Selfishness is actually not loving yourself and consequently trying to snatch the attention, the pleasures and all the possible and impossible things to fill the void created by the neglect of self.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the ability to be kind and non-judgmental toward yourself. It is an understanding that you do not have to be perfect, that you are enough. Self-compassion is a very counterintuitive notion because we believe harsh criticism is motivational and character building. Nothing can be further from the truth. According to Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and a lecturer at Stanford University, when we harshly criticize ourselves, the parts of our brain responsible for action shut down, and the brain goes into a protective mode. But most importantly, we cannot be genuinely compassionate toward others if we are not compassionate toward ourselves.

As I have attempted to show, compassion deserves a second look because it is complex and multifaceted — it is intricately tied with vulnerability, honesty and ability to stay in the moment, and even our relationship to our selves. Ultimately, compassion deserves a second chance because it is up to us to dare to be compassionate and to find out what it is.


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