Compassion: It is one of the most important, underrated, and meaningful gifts we can give to ourselves and to others.
Compassion and Suffering
Let me define compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin words cum (with) and patior (to suffer). This etymology suggests that compassion means “to suffer with” or to be “with suffering”.
When we show compassion to ourselves we are present with ourselves in our pain—perhaps by sitting silently and acknowledging our painful feelings or by allowing ourselves to cry or take time to rest. When we show compassion to others, we sit with them or are present with them in their pain—perhaps by listening to them or even just being with them in silence.
What pain are we present with? The pain of life. When we have compassion for ourselves and others, we recognize that life is often confusing, overwhelming, tragic, heartbreaking, confusing, terrifying—just to name a few emotions.
We do not try to deny or escape or stuff down or avoid this pain. When we exercise compassion, we acknowledge fully the suffering life brings. We acknowledge that this suffering is not something can be escaped or even explained. It must be faced, and it is a storm we must often weather.
And it isn’t fun for anyone.
When we show compassion to ourselves and others, we are willing to recognize and abide in suffering with ourselves and others.
It is this willingness to be present in suffering and to acknowledge it that makes compassion such a gift.
Unfortunately, rather that giving this gift, we often operate in Controlling Mode, which is the opposite of compassion.
Controlling Mode: An Attempt to Escape Suffering
When we operate in Controlling Mode, we do everything we can to ward off failure, suffering, heartache, mistakes, sickness, setbacks, confusion, and ambiguity.
We may become absorbed with planning, with organizing, with looking ahead, with scanning our environment to identify and ward off potential threats, with trying to make everyone else happy.
When we operate in Controlling Mode, we often get trapped in Try Hard Enough Thinking. When we are caught in this kind of thinking, we believe that if we just try hard enough, we will be able to avoid making mistakes or angering people or to avoid failing or suffering tragic and difficult situations.
Generally speaking, when we operate in controlling mode, we do it in hopes of preventing suffering.
Blame and Shame
This may sound good—after all, who doesn’t want to avoid suffering? And honestly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to control our life as much as we can. There is also nothing noble about seeking out suffering solely for the sake of suffering.
The problem arises when we think, consciously or unconsciously, that it is our responsibility or the responsibility of others to control everything and prevent all or most suffering.
When we think this, we begin playing the Blame and Shame Game. When we experience any kind of suffering like failure, fear, anger, or error, we feel look for someone to blame. If we blame ourselves, we often also feel deep shame about suffering because we think we did something wrong and brought it on ourselves. If we blame other people, we often try to shame them for the suffering we experience. (And certainly sometimes people are indeed responsible for our suffering.*)
This Doesn’t Work
Here’s the thing: Controlling Mode and the Blame and Shame Game don’t work or solve anything in the long run.
Because some suffering is inescapable.
In our human condition, we are limited in our understanding and our power. We necessarily make mistakes. This is how we learn. And we suffer.
We experience heartache because we lose people in various ways. We also inevitably have misunderstanding with people, despite our best intentions. And we suffer.
We experience the pain of ignorance and error, once again, despite our best intentions. And we suffer.
We all grow older, and although age brings a lot of blessings, it also brings inevitable loss that no one can avoid. And we suffer.
For these reasons, and many more, Controlling Mode is never a long-term or even a particularly successful short-term coping strategy.
We certainly can control some things, but we cannot control everything. Some suffering, and often much suffering, is inevitable. And when we try to control and blame and shame, we make our suffering worse. We also add to the suffering of other people.
Compassion is a far better way to address suffering. To understand why, it is helpful to think of how we treat babies and young children when they are suffering. When little children (babies or toddlers) are afraid or sad, generally speaking we realize that it is not wise to ignore their emotions or to try to push them aside or to tell them “to just deal with it.”
We recognize that when little children have painful emotions, they need listening, presence, love, and tenderness. Being a little kid is scary because there is so much of the world that little kids do not understand. Adults know that we can’t fix the world completely for little children.
What we can do, instead, is shower them with love and tenderness and be present with them and hold them when they are sad. When we do this, we build confidence and powerful emotional strength in children so they can weather the storm of suffering they are facing as well as future storms.
Why do we think that adults are so different from children when it comes to suffering?
Adults experience the same painful emotions that children do. We just experience them about different things. Why do we think that children deserve compassion, love and presence but adults just need to put on their big girl and big boy panties and deal with it?
Why We Suffer a Lack of Compassion
There are many reasons we struggle to show compassion to older kids or adults, but here are three of the most common ones:
One: It is inconvenient.
Showing true compassion requires us to be present, attentive, and gentle with people when they are suffering. This can be inconvenient sometimes because it requires us to let go of our “To-Do List” and to just be with them and do nothing but be present.
This is hard for many of us to do, especially if we are really attached to our “To-Do Lists”.
Two: It requires us to release our expectations of other people.
We often have expectations for other people, especially our family members, friends, and partners. There are certain ways we want them to behave to make our life easier and more enjoyable. Of course there is nothing wrong with desiring that people behave in a certain way that is pleasant for us.
It is a problem, however, when our expectations for others make us intolerant of or impatient with their suffering. When we expect or demand that the people in our life “get over” their suffering or stuff it down or deny it in order to meet our needs, we are using other people as objects to make us happy, rather than supporting their emotional health and growth as a human being. This is unloving and unethical.
This is also why we sometimes have problems showing compassion to ourselves. We have expectations for ourselves for how we want ourselves to behave, and we frequently get angry when we don’t meet our own expectations.
Once again, if our expectations for ourselves cause us to be intolerant of our own suffering, we are using ourselves as an object, rather than supporting our own emotional health and flourishing. This is also unloving and unethical.
Three: It requires vulnerability.
When we show true compassion to people and we are present with them in their suffering, this makes us vulnerable because it reminds us that we have the potential to suffer, too. No one likes to suffer, and this is why we get locked into Controlling Mode so easily.
Operating in Controlling Mode allows us to construct a fantasy world in which we believe we don’t really have to suffer if we just try hard enough. Compassion shatters this fantasy world and reminds us that no one is immune to some suffering, and this can be terrifying to us.
So many of us consciously or unconsciously shy away from showing compassion so that we will not be reminded of our own vulnerability to suffering.
But is Compassion Really Necessary?
Perhaps we might recognize, at this point, that compassion is a nice thing or a very good thing, but we might wonder if it is actually necessary. For instance, perhaps we wonder if there is some other way to deal with suffering that doesn’t require compassion, which can be really inconvenient.
I believe that compassion is absolutely necessary because it is the only way we can heal festering emotional wounds.
If you will pardon the gruesome image for a minute, I would like you to imagine someone who has a really deep gash in her arm. It is an extremely severe injury that requires stitches and medical attention.
Imagine if someone told this girl with a deep wound, “Oh, just stick a bunch of band-aids on it. You’ll get over it.” Or, worse yet, if someone said, “It’s not that bad. Deal with it.”
If this girl left her wound untreated or just tried to cover up the wound with a bunch of band-aids, she would not be dealing with the seriousness of the wound. Her lack of treatment could cause extreme loss of blood or, at the very least, severe infections. She could lose her arm or even her life.
The only way her arm can heal is for her to recognize the seriousness of the wound, to give it gentle and healing attention, and to give it time to heal.
This is what compassion is like. Compassion recognizes our emotional wound; it treats this wound with presence, attention, and gentleness; and it allows us time to heal.
If we try to just stick a bunch of band-aids over our emotional wounds or demand that we or others just get over our wounds, our wounds lead to a loss of our emotional power, and our emotional wounds eventually fester.
This can cause all sorts of problems like deep depression, addictions, rage issues, and obsessive- compulsive behaviors, to name a few.
Compassion is the wisest, most responsible, and mature thing to show ourselves and others when we are suffering emotionally.
Postscript: Stay tuned for following posts that discussion how you can know if you have problems showing compassion and how you can develop skills of compassion.
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* I am not at all suggesting in this post that we allow people to abuse us or take advantage of us or violate our boundaries in the name of compassion. Some people take their suffering out on other people, and compassion never requires us to tolerate this behavior.
Final Note: All photos in this post are my own.
Published by shellypruittjohnson
My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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23 thoughts on “Compassion: A Way Forward Through Suffering”
This is interesting. For many causes of suffering there is perhaps some unconscious blame, or an assumption that terrible misfortune happens because you didn’t guard against it. For example divorce, addiction, debt… the controlling aspect is very relevant to parenthood, as we often hover over children like helicopter parents in case they get hurt, physically or emotionally. As you say, suffering is inevitable, and it is no one’s fault. I also thought it was interesting that we get cross with suffering people if they are not fulfilling an expected role, e.g. working, functioning normally. Food for thought…
Ali, I am so glad you found this helpful. Your comments were really helpful for me in thinking through this post. I so often get caught up in blaming when suffering happens. I often think my blaming adds more to my suffering, whether I am blaming myself or other people. Thank you so much for reading.
Really liked the comparison to physical wounds. You are right in that we need to take just us much time and care for emotional ones. Giving them time to heal, as impatient as it makes us at times, is probably the most important part!
Thank you so much, M.B. That wound analogy helps me a lot, too. I think you are right about the importance of patience. Thank you, so much, as always for reading.
Makes me wish patience was one of my better virtues 😉
Me, too. I totally sympathize.
I love this article and I want to live like this. I’ve been really harsh with myself to the point where I feel little compassion for not only myself but others… this itself leads to deep shame. I see in your footnote that you say that we don’t need to stay with people who make us suffer but I’m confused because we mess up and hurt people sometimes. I also am defensive about this due to my own shame about having BPD and feeling like I always only hurt people therefore am unworthy of love. Do you have any thoughts?
Hi Destini: Thank you for your comment. I can really sympathize with being harsh with yourself and feeling shame. I think this is something that a lot of us struggle with. Your question about my footnote is a really good one, and I can understand your defensive feelings because all of us make mistakes and it is not right for people to expect us to be perfect.
Perhaps this is a good way to think about it: All of us have a good and a dark side of us–I think of these two sides of us as our Wise Self and Wounded Self. Our Wise Self is our place of love , wisdom, creativity and compassion. When we forget or get cut off from our Wise Self, this is when we start to do bad things like hurt other people. When we realize this, it can help us to have compassion for both ourselves and others, even in our bad behavior.
We have compassion for ourselves because we realize that we are acting badly because of shame we have or because we feel unlovable or cut off from love. But we can also have compassion for other people because we realize that in our own suffering, sometimes we hurt people and cause them to suffer, too.
What can we do when we realize this? We can make sure that we get the help (like through counseling or a spiritual community) that we need so that we can connect with love again and learn to love ourselves. This will help us to stop hurting people because of our suffering. Then, we can try to make amends and restore our relationship with people that we have hurt.
Sometimes we can restore relationships, but sometimes we have to realize that no restoration is possible because of our past actions. In these cases, we can recognize that this is really painful and mourn the consequences of our past behavior. But we can also show love to ourselves and vow to keep working on loving ourselves so that we can love others, too.
I hope this is helpful. Here are some other posts that might help you:
Seven Steps to Love: Recovering from Self-Hate
Healing Our Hearts Through Self-Directed Kindness: