Compassion, from Latin, means “to suffer with” (co-passion). Empathy also has the meaning of taking on the suffering of another. Some writers hold that empathy precedes compassion, and that compassion has the component of wanting to take action whereas empathy does not. I use compassion in that sense, of stepping into the suffering of another (empathy) and wanting to help.
I posted “Distance” a few days ago. The poem is meant to portray the distance we might inadvertently be keeping while consoling someone in distress. To practice compassion we have to first do what we can to feel what the other is feeling, whether it be loss, remorse, fear, guilt, unworthiness – whatever it might be. Maybe we can draw from our own experiences of these things to try to feel what the other is feeling. If we try to console someone without first trying to experience something of their suffering, then there will be distance between our words and what that person is going through.
If someone who is depressed says to me I have nothing to live for, and I respond by saying you have much to live for; if I tell someone who feels shame or guilt or abandonment or other trauma because of sexual abuse at some time in their life and who was left to deal with it on their own that they shouldn’t hold on to those feelings and that it is time to move on; if I say to a victim of domestic violence that she (and sometimes he) should simply leave the abusive partner – If I respond in this way, then I have responded at a distance from their suffering. And the person I have tried to help may feel that I have contradicted, minimized or erased their suffering. And that I have demonstrated my own lack of understanding of the power and complexity of what they experience.
Stepping into another’s suffering can be difficult to do. There can be obstacles to it.
One obstacle that I’ve encountered is this: A close friend was in a time of intense suffering, and I wanted to be compassionate. Wishing for her to find relief from her suffering was easy. And so was staying in touch and doing whatever I could to help. But I ran into a wall when I tried to put myself in her place. Her suffering involved a great and ongoing trauma to her child. And when I tried to imagine the same thing happening to my child, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Rage at what had been done to my friend and her child dominated. When I tried to put myself in her place, I wanted blood. That was as far as I could get. Compassion can be difficult. It is a serious practice.
Maybe empathy is there spontaneously. Or maybe we draw from our own life experience to get close to another in their suffering – difficult though it might be. And if we succeed, then the other person will know that they are not alone in their suffering. And it could be that our own experience can give us words to say that will help.
There is a story of a man who falls into a deep hole in the sidewalk. So deep he can’t get out. He begins calling for help, and soon a wealthy passerby stops and drops some money down to him. But the man is still lost in the hole. Later a minister happens by and stops at the hole. The minister writes a prayer on a piece of paper and drops it down to the man. At last someone stops by who looks down at the man and immediately jumps into the hole with him. The stranger looks into the man’s eyes and smiles. The man is bewildered by the stranger’s behavior. He says, I’m happy for the company, but now you are in the hole too! The stranger replies, Yes. But I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.
Jump into the hole with the one who suffers. Especially if you know the way out. And even if you don’t.