What Does it Mean to be Compassionate?
David offers a hand of friendship to the new kid at school who is alone and desperate to fit in. Sarah provides a warm meal for the homeless man who sleeps under the viaduct that she passes on the way to work everyday. Jenny sponsors a drive to collect food and various sundries to be delivered to people who have been displaced by the recent tornados that ravaged the state.
These all are examples of compassion in action. But what is compassion? Is it part of our human nature or do only a few people have the capacity for compassion? And can compassion be learned?
“Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and that we take action in the face of suffering.” – Brene Brown
Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” Five-time New York Times bestselling author, Brene Brown, provides a compelling definition of compassion as “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and that we take action in the face of suffering.” Note that compassion is not just an feeling of sensitivity. It includes action along with empathy, the ability to imagine another’s perspective or plight. More about that in a moment.
But is compassion a part of our human nature? Judging from our history and stories of human greed and cruelty, we might assume that we are motivated by self-interest and the negative aspects of human nature more than the positive. In fact, in some circles compassion is considered soft and weak.
Compassion is our strongest instinct, even stronger that self-interest.
– Charles Darwin
However, as Dacher Keltner, of the Greater Good Science Center notes, recent evidence suggests that compassion is rooted in our brain and biology, is a more evolved part of our human nature, and that it can be learned as well. Although not widely known, even Darwin himself, noted that compassion is our strongest instinct, even stronger that self-interest.
A series of recent studies have shown that taking compassionate action releases oxytocin, the socially bonding hormone, and activates the same parts of the brain that are involved when we derive pleasure from the gratification of our personal desires. In addition, compassion can be universally communicated through non-verbal gestures such as our facial expressions and touch.
Compassion is not so much a product of our DNA, but more so a function of our learning that no one is immune to pain and suffering, and that it is in the awareness of our shared humanity that compassion is rooted.
So how do we promote greater compassion in ourselves, others, and especially in our children?
— We can strengthen feelings of kindness and connection with ourselves and others through the practice of loving-kindness meditation and by extending kind gestures to others in our everyday life.
— Get involved where you see a need.
— As parents, work to provide the type of bond with your children that promotes a secure attachment with them. Children who feel securely attached to their parents show more compassion toward their peers.
— Children who are raised to think about the consequences of their misbehavior and the harm that it causes others, as opposed to children who are simply punished using physical means or strong emotional responses, are better adjusted overall and are more compassionate.
— As parents, it’s important to remember that our children model what we do, not so much what we say. So, provide examples of your acting compassionately.
In today’s world, on virtually all levels, it seems that cooperation and compassion are of greater value to the survival of our species and planet than competition and struggles for dominance.
Jeffrey L. Santee, Ph.D., DCE