We can respond to our human pain with judgment or compassion. Compassion is always the wiser and better choice.
Compassion starts with the understanding that we are human and not superhuman.
Human or Superhuman?
To be human is to be finite, which means that we get sick, we make mistakes, we fail, we experience change, we experience loss and heartache, we grow older and experience both the beauty and hardship of aging. There is so much we don’t know. There is so much that is out of our control.
Again, technically we know all of this, and we know this is what it means to be human.
Despite the fact we know these things, many of us have a really difficult time accepting our humanity, and we become extremely judgmental and even hateful towards ourselves when we exhibit signs of our humanity.
Forgetting Our Humanity
For instance, many of us expect ourselves to be strong physically all the time, and we become judgmental with ourselves when we become sick or overly tired.
And many of us tend to be perfectionists, and we become judgmental with ourselves when we make mistakes or fail.
Or we expect ourselves to function at 100% all the time, and we become judgmental with ourselves when we experience sadness, anger, depression, grief, or anxiety. We expect ourselves to just deal with it or get over it.
As another example, many of us expect ourselves to be eternally youthful in our looks and our abilities, and we become judgmental with ourselves when develop wrinkles or we experience a diminishing of certain abilities.
We often aim this judgment at ourselves, but we also often aim it at other people.
Sometimes this judgment is temporary and leads to brief feelings of sadness or disappointment with ourselves. On the other hand, sometimes our judgment lingers. And we become increasingly harsh and critical, which leads to feelings of despair, self-hatred, and even self-loathing.
Our judgment of others can also lead us to be really harsh and critical of them, which can also lead us to despair of them or even hate or loathe them.
Judgment Doesn’t Work
Responding to our humanity with judgment is really painful because we can’t help but be human, and other people can’t help but be human. Judging ourselves for what is the most basic and also what is an inevitable aspect of our existence is self-defeating and self-alienating.
We need an alternative to judgment for dealing with our humanity. Luckily we have one: compassion.
Compassion is our ability to remain present, patient and observant with ourselves and others in the midst of suffering.
Compassion and Suffering
Suffering is a common experience of being human.
This isn’t to say that being a human being is a drag all the time. Rather, it is to point out that all of the characteristics of being human such as being prone to physical illness, to ignorance, to mistakes, to failure, to change, to loss, to death. And all of these bring pain and sadness on a regular basis.
Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of being human.
Compassion is a great way to respond to it.
While judgment treats suffering as abnormal and as our fault or somebody else’s fault, compassion treats suffering as normal and as understandably upsetting. Because of this, compassion is a gift. (You can read more of an in depth explanation of compassion here.)
Here are five benefits compassion brings us:
When we are compassionate with ourselves and others, we say (more or less), “I know life is really hard, confusing, and painful sometimes. I am here for you.”
This recognition is like a comforting embrace, much like when our parents held us and comforted us when we were little and afraid or in pain. We never outgrow our need for this comfort. Compassion provides this parent-like soothing for ourselves and others whenever it is extended.
When we show compassion to ourselves and others, we recognize the pain and suffering that life brings all of us.
Recognition of our suffering and the suffering of others is really important. When we refuse to recognize it, we are gaslighting ourselves and others. When people gaslight other people, they minimize their suffering or pretend it is not occurring. Or they tell people that their suffering is all in their heads.
People who gaslight purposefully are trying to dominate or control other people by undermining people’s confidence in their own judgment or sanity. (You can read more about gaslighting here.)
It is weird to think of us gaslighting ourselves, but we often do this unintentionally because our painful feelings can be inconvenient and upsetting to us. So, we try to minimize them to avoid dealing with the inconvenience. We can also unintentionally gaslight others for the same reason.
When we offer compassion to ourselves and others in our suffering, we recognize and honor our experience and the experience of others. This is a way of affirming their experience, their personhood, and their dignity. It is a way of saying, “Your opinion and experience are important, and I validate them.”
When we show compassion to ourselves and others in our suffering, we speak the truth about the human condition. When we automatically judge ourselves and others for suffering, what we are saying, more or less, is this: “Your pain is your fault. You are supposed to be in control and on top of things all the time. Pain is a sign of failure.” ‘
This judgment about our suffering is false. And when we tell ourselves these things, we make our life harder to live.
This also makes it harder for us to think clearly and act wisely. The only way we can think clearly and act wisely is if we have accurate information. The judgment that pain is always a sign of failure and that someone is always to blame is not accurate.
Therefore, when we try to act on this information, we end up making our lives and other people’s lives more painful.
Four: Healing and Hope
When we are honest about suffering, it provides healing for us. For example, let’s say that a loved-one treats us badly and betrays us. This is one of the most painful experiences we can suffer, and we feel this suffering deeply.
If a friend or family member tells us that we just need to get over it, it feels like just another wound or a betrayal.
On the other hand, when someone recognizes our suffering, this is an act of compassion that show gentleness, respect, and love, too.
All of these are beautiful expressions of care. When people show us this kind of care, it heals our broken hearts a little bit. It also gives us hope that even though some people may betray us, there are other people who care for us.
Furthermore, when we show ourselves consistent compassion in the face suffering, we communicate to ourselves, “I love you, and I always have your back.”
This self-love creates a beautiful inner sanctuary of love we can return to when we suffer and feel betrayed.
When we show compassion, we free ourselves and others for new and good growth.
We grow when we try positive new activities, beliefs, and practices that stretch us so that we feel challenged but not too overwhelmed. When have the correct knowledge, the strength, and the healing that compassion brings, we have the proper view of our life situation. We also possess the emotional energy to take the next step.
This provides an excellent opportunity for positive growth.
When we show compassion to other people, we also create the ideal conditions for them to experience positive growth as well. I think this idea is captured beautifully in this quote by Thomas Merton:
“Love is in fact an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of Life…Life curves upward to a peak of intensity, a high point of value and meaning, at which all its latent creative possibility to go into action and the person transcends himself or herself in encouragement, response, and communion with another.”
Compassion Does Not Permit Mistreatment
As a concluding note, I want to point out that having compassion for people does not entail that we allow them to mistreat or abuse ourselves or others or that we remain in a relationship with people who treat us this way. It is possible to draw boundaries or sever ties with abusive people but still be compassionate to them.
In doing so, we recognize the way people’s bad behavior increases their own suffering.
Compassion never requires us to mistreat ourselves or violate or own boundaries. In fact, compassion requires that we always treat ourselves with respect and care.
Getting Stuck or Moving Forward?
When we face the limits of our humanity, it is tempting to respond to ourselves and others with judgment and criticism. But this only increases our suffering, and we end up in an increasingly painful cycle of judgment, suffering, and despair.
Compassion is the way out of this cycle, and it provides us with the comfort, truth, healing, and hope that we need to move forward. Take up compassion; leave behind the judgment, Friend.
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 In pointing out the problem of judging others, I am not suggesting that we excuse other people for bad, abusive, and cruel behavior.
 Thomas Merton qutd. in bell hooks, All About Love, pg. 75-76
hooks, bell. All About Love. Harper Collins Publishers: 2000.