For this twenty-second tool in my Evolutionary tools series I’d like to discuss a tool whose power I have only recently come to recognise: compassion.
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others’. How is this a tool? It’s all very noble, but how do pity and a concern for others fit into this series on practical tools to improve our wellbeing?
Because the dictionary definition is woefully lacking… It sees compassion as a passive emotional state where one person sympathises with others.
The dictionary definition is woefully lacking… It totally fails to recognise the active side of compassion that enables a compassionate person to powerfully and positively alter their interactions with others.
It totally fails to recognise the active side of compassion that enables a compassionate person to powerfully and positively alter their interactions with others, particularly when conflict is involved.
We can be compassionate towards someone who is suffering and it changes little. It may provoke us to make a gesture—to reach out, or perhaps donate to an emergency appeal. That is in itself valuable, but as a tool it comes into its own in the face of antagonism.
Antidote to antagonism
It’s very difficult for someone to be upset with you when you genuinely feel compassionate. When you truly recognise the pain of their situation and do not judge them for it. This true compassion is totally disarming.
They may come at you with their emotional claws grasping for your jugular vein, but in the face of true compassion their antagonism will wither, to be replaced by a shared sense of the suffering that the human journey sometimes entails.
I recently had an experience where I decided to disengage from a business commitment that was becoming increasingly toxic.
So I wrote a completely neutral email explaining my decision, with no blame for either party. I offered to meet for a face-to-face discussion. I made arrangements to resolve all outstanding issues. But I also left no doubt my decision was final.
More importantly, I wrote the email from a place of total compassion. The reply I received went completely against the grain of the way matters had been going. It was polite, recognised the difficulties between us, and accepted the termination of the arrangement in good grace.
Compassion for self
To work, compassion must come from a place of humility, an egoless state. It’s not a clever tool to get someone off our backs. We can feel sorry for others yet still maintain an emotional distance, stay aloof. That doesn’t work. We must participate in the compassion.
True compassion requires us to be as compassionate towards ourselves as we are towards others, and that’s hard. We tend to be much harder on ourselves than on others.
This one-sided compassion doesn’t have the disarming effect that I mention above. For that our compassion must run both ways, recognising not only the humanity of whoever is facing us but also that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
We all need compassion at times. Extend it to both yourself and others. It’s a game-changer.