One of the syllabus subtopics in grade 12 psychology is social responsibility, which includes a study of prosocial behaviour: Why, how, and in what circumstances do people do good things for others? As part of this topic, we look at theories of altruism and empathy. My students are very often familiar with the words themselves, but the definitions can be tricky, especially because the colloquial use of these words does not always match their actual meaning, or the way that they are defined for purposes of psychology research. When defining altruism and empathy in class, we also consider the word compassion. According to Merriam-Webster, these three words can be defined as follows:
altruism – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
It follows from here that empathy is feeling for and with others without the reliance on personal experience, compassion is awareness of others’ negative feelings and the desire to lessen pain, and altruism is doing something good for others without the hope for personal gain.
This is one of the circumstances in which I wish English had better words, and in which I am inclined to lean on other languages for their definitions. Learning other languages allows us to learn a great deal about how we see the world due to the language that we use, and I am indebted to my own studies of different languages, as well as exposure to several languages from childhood, in forming this critical understanding.
More recently, I learned the German word Mitgefühl from one of those pithy sayings that sometimes accompanies teabags. I looked up the word and thought, “Aha.” Literally translated, this means “feeling with” and is the German word for compassion. To have compassion is to feel with someone, which therefore clearly implies wanting to lessen the pain of negative emotions. It’s normal, totally okay, and even healthy to sit with negative emotions. We cannot, and should not, be happy and positive all the time, because being so would mean blocking out much of the real world. But it is not enough to wish away the bad; to be compassionate requires doing something to get rid of the bad. I can feel with you and hold your hand, and perhaps this is the action. Perhaps this is the tiny step from just feeling. After all, can I claim to feel with if you don’t know I’m there?
Mitgefühl explains what is required by compassion in a way that the English word does not. When I expressed my delight with this finding to a German friend, he taught me another word that doesn’t exist in English, though the idea certainly does. Mitfreude is not classified as a word in the first German-English dictionary that I checked, but it appears on discussion forums, blogs, and also in other dictionaries. Mit means with and Freude is joy, so Mitfreude can be defined as shared joy. I like that this is a word in German because it sets a tone for the way people relate to one another. Once upon a time, as I was slowly and poetically picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I kept a note on my phone that said, “When those we love are happy, be happy for them.” Mitfreude describes what I felt amidst all the other turmoil, and I remember feeling lighter as I wrote myself that note. Maybe having a word would have given me a place to situate myself without needing to come up with my own inspirational saying.
One thing I am learning about Germany, and this is demonstrated by words like the two described here, is that there is an emphasis on the collective. There is a focus on others, on being part of a group, and on togetherness. This is reinforced by the German school system, reflected to some degree also at my school, in which classes move as a group for the entirety of their time together, making them a bit like a family in which they are attuned to one another and responsible for each other. Upon learning the word Mitgefühl from a tea bag, I had a better appreciation of why this is the way that it is.
Language and culture are inextricably linked and it is through learning one that we can access the other. It is then through learning that we come to better understand ourselves, where we come from, and how we fit into the different worlds in which we wander.
“Learning another language is like becoming another person.” – Haruki Murakami
Beginning in late spring 2016, I started a post series called “Building Peace”. Two years later, I collected my thoughts into a book with the same title and have kept up the series periodically since. It has been over a year since I have specifically titled a post in this way but peacebuilding is never far from my mind.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I have been interested in compassion for a long time and that my views about what compassion is (and isn’t) have grown, evolved, and shifted. The word compassion has become increasingly popular and as a result, it has also lost much of its intended meaning. The consequence of diluted meaning is that we think we’re all doing just fine behaving just the way we are . . . when in fact we are not.
Let’s start with some definitions.
With a little help from my favourite dictionary
According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper’s truly hilarious account Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the meaning of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. In my personal experience, compassion is often linked with both care and empathy but these also have very different meanings. Empathy is the more nuanced of the two and Merriam-Webster provides two definitions:
1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner –also: the capacity for this 2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
So, compassion means understanding someone’s distress and desiring to alleviate it. Empathy means, in colloquial terms, putting yourself in the shoes of another person to understand their place and perspective. Empathy means that you need to understand. Compassion means that you need to act.
Who is compassion for?
Not too long ago I wrote about why people choose not to act. I have also written that compassion is a practice and that it takes work and time and, significantly, the desire to do good or do what is right. I have tended to focus on compassion between individuals and through this focus, I think I’ve missed some fundamental points. This post attempts to take a more nuanced view of compassion than I have taken in the past.
A few conversations with several people, some reflections on religious texts, and a Theory of Knowledge lesson on consequentialist ethics (among others) has led me to an idea that differs from what I have written previously. Rather than being between and for individuals, compassion is for the community.
Jane is an experienced teacher new to my school. She spends most of her time putting together colourful documents and showing them off to others. She misses planning meetings with some colleagues (although attends others), comes to work over the weekend to mark papers (although takes weeks to return anything to her students), and repeats herself frequently in conversation. Jane operates on a highly rigid structure that she is proud of and claims works for her, but she seems constantly overwhelmed. Despite this, she volunteers for additional tasks and amends work that others have created, leading to yet more colourful documents. It is not uncommon for Jane to ask how a colleague approached a particular lesson only to launch into a detailed explanation of how she, Jane, redesigned each of the resources that had been previously created for collective use.
What should a compassionate colleague do with Jane?
You may answer that the colleague should mentor her, talk with her, share their own resources, or offer suggestions about different ways of working. Maybe they should partner with Jane on her projects and split up the work, or take on some of her tasks.
Maybe our compassionate colleague should do all of these things, but they will soon learn that Jane will just continue along the way Jane always has. So they could choose to invest time in Jane but they already have evidence that Jane is unlikely to take any advice. Nevertheless, she might need someone to talk to. Okay, let’s provide a listening ear here and there, perhaps over lunch.
But what if the right thing to do with Jane at this point is to recognise that Jane has made a choice to resist help? Doing this allows the reallocation of time to those in my community who might actually benefit.
This is where we run into problems: It’s relatively easy for us to identify a specific and obviously suffering person and do something for them that will make us feel good. However, doing so misses the fundamental point that there is much more that we don’t see. By devoting our time and energy to a single individual, we miss a far greater responsibility, which is that to our community.
I argue here that the community needs to be highlighted and emphasised in our discourse on compassion. Far too often, we devote our time, energy, and resources to relatively few people at the detriment to and neglect of others around us. There are many reasons why we might do this: ego in feeling useful, the sunk cost fallacy in which we’ve already given one person so much of our time that we don’t want to give up, and fear of being wrong about our decision to help someone in the first place. The point remains the same: We have a responsibility to the communities we have chosen to be part of.
Let’s consider three items to consider: 1. What does this mean and how does this work? 2. Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community? 3. Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.
What does this mean and how does this work?
If we consider compassion as part of our responsibility to a community, this means that we need to look much more broadly than we are accustomed to. It means being aware of those around us, and not only when they’re upset in the ways that we are used to seeing people upset. This varies significantly by culture, which is another piece of this puzzle. Rather, we need to see one another to know each other, and through doing so, we need to cultivate connections with others even in the smallest ways.
Considering ourselves compassionate means that we are available for those around us before they reach the point of needing to be held. There is a great deal of research on the importance of social connection that I will not reiterate here, but do take a look. Here’s a link to start you off.
Compassion is, therefore, an attitude that we can take in our interactions and approaches to others at any time. I’ve written at length about adopting principles as attitudes and I think this is an appropriate lens. If I am a compassionate person, this is the way I see the world. Choosing times to act compassionately while neglecting that principle at other times does not equate.
Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?
I will focus on education here because this is a chosen realm in which I can actually say a thing or two. Even if you are not part of an educational community, please read on. I hope you will be able to apply what I say to your own context – and I’d really like to hear about it!
Let’s consider the people who work in schools, specifically people responsible for teaching and learning. This means administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff. These are the people who have specifically chosen to be in a school context. Regardless of the reason for that choice, all of these adults are responsible in some way for the teaching and learning that will help shape young people. They carry a duty to raise these young people in certain ways.
If it is evident that some people do not behave in accordance with the purposes and practices of a community, they should be asked to modify their behaviours or be invited to leave. They have entered into a social contract with these young people and are responsible for their end of it.
In the context of education, the primary responsibility of all of these adults is first to the students in their care. My actions should be framed around how a certain decision, special event, or daily occurrence will impact students. This means that when we think about compassion, we need to consider the overall impact of our actions on the community that exists to support students, not only the impact of one individual’s choice on another.
The purpose of this post is not to provide guidance on how to make choices but to point out our tendency to fixate on individual relationships and forget that we are actually part of something much bigger. The purpose of this post is to argue that we need to ask very different questions than we are in the habit of asking. Our concern should not stop with the recognition that an individual colleague or student is overwhelmed. Rather, it should extend to consider who else might be feeling similarly, why that is, and what we can do to create a better environment for all. This is what it means to reframe our discourse on compassion.
Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.
I agree that this is sometimes the case. We choose our friends, not our families, and many of us are born into a culture, heritage, ethnic group, or religious tradition (or some combination thereof). Even without a choice, the outcome is the same. If we want parts of our lives to work in certain ways, we are responsible for building that. Kant’s categorical imperative states that our behaviour should reflect what we wish to be universal law. A really simple way of putting it: If you do X, imagine a world in which everyone else does X.
My guess is that most people would prefer a world in which we actively look out for each other rather than invest our time and energy into one squeaky wheel. And my other guess is that there’s far more of the latter going on than the former. This is why we need to start asking different questions and making different choices.
So even if you did not choose to be part of a community, you are. As stated above, I do not believe that anyone should be forced into a community that they do not want to be part of. In the case of voluntary communities, you can leave at any time. Even involuntary communities are, to some extent and barring extremes, voluntary. Making the choice not to leave does not privilege any individual over the collective community fabric.
Compassion as peacebuilding
A long time ago, I identified building peace as the purpose of education. The linked post explains how I arrived at this view. Compassion is part of peacebuilding because it is with compassion that we relate to others in ways that recognise all parts of their humanity. In doing so, we also recognise our own.
From writer Susan Sontag:
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
This is precisely why it is not enough to talk about, think about, and bandy about compassion. Being compassionate cannot be reserved for the easy and obvious moments and we cannot wait for someone else to show us what to do. If we are human and those around us are human, if we are part of a community, and if we actually cast a wide look around rather than fixating on one visible point . . . this is action. These are our actions. And acting in this way opens the possibilities of deeper connection, and a more peaceful and more just world.
After four days of marking mock exams, I was scrolling through Facebook in an effort to turn my mind off. I saw a death announcement with comments like, “She was so beautiful” and “She will be missed”. This led me to remember a car accident that took the life of a grade 12 student when I had just started high school. I remembered the vigil and the locker turned into a shrine, the words of love and affection on the news and at school.
At the time my mother asked, “Did anyone say these things when he was alive? Or is now just the appropriate time?”
That question has stayed with me ever since.
Last week, as part of an activity for Compassion Month at school, my co-advisor and I asked our students to write a letter to someone who had influenced them. I wrote to my first friend in Singapore and put the note on her desk. It was such an easy thing to do and I’d waited a really long time to do it.
Clearly, this is a problem. We wait too long to say the good things. Many of us are quick to get upset with others and quick to point out when we’ve been wronged, but how often do we look around and try to figure out what’s going on with the people around us? How much effort does it take, really, to say, “Hey, I see you.”
A friend and I have been talking about the problems we see with the wellness industry and a very significant one is that it has given us permission to look only at ourselves. All of this looking inward and improving the self has the effect of stopping us from looking at just about anything else. I’m supposed to focus on me, right? Everything else can wait.
In all of that wellness, how often do we apply what we do for ourselves to others? How often do we actually look at the people around us and acknowledge them the way we demand to be looked at and acknowledged?
I could go on much longer about this but the message I would like to emphasise is pretty simple: Spend a few minutes outside your own head and notice who is around you. Make sure to really look. Let them know that you see them.
Small things really can make a big difference.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place