Compassion is when we feel sympathy for another person’s suffering and want to help. The term originates from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with”.
There are two components of its meaning: the first is the feeling of sympathy, and the second is the motivation to relieve suffering. This is what makes it distinct from very similar concepts such as empathy and sympathy. Both of which are states of feeling, but they do not imply a motive to help.
There are many examples of acts of compassion that can be seen every day. Simple gestures like opening the door for someone with their hands full and devoting one’s life to the care of the sick and elderly are examples of compassion.
Definition of Compassion
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
These are the wise words of a man that lived a long time ago. You have to wonder what he would think of today’s world where everyone is so distant and self-absorbed. Although technology made it easier for human beings to communicate, in many respects, it has actually made us more disconnected.
In fact, some research in the social sciences has consistently shown a link between the use of technology and depression (Lauckner, Hill, & Ingram, 2018).
1. Taking in a Stray Dog
Nothing can tug at the heart like seeing a scraggly stray wonder the neighborhood. The sad eyes, tail between the legs, and ears laid back are a sad sight indeed.
Most definitely at least one of the neighborhood kids are going to want to take the mutt home, feed and bath him. This is a classic sign of compassion; not just feeling sad for the dog, but also wanting to do something about it.
Although this example might seem trite in some cultures, it should not be dismissed. In many countries stray dogs are not given a second look, while in others they might actually be captured for nefarious purposes. Compassion for strays is not a human condition shared by all.
2. Helping Someone Pick up Groceries
Small acts of kindness can go a long way to helping someone endure a bad day. Gestures like helping an elderly person pick up their groceries that just spilled all over the floor is showing compassion in a relatively mild form. But it is still compassion and it will probably brighten that person’s day considerably.
Getting old is never fun and simple things like leaning over or going up the stairs can be a real struggle. We don’t often think about that when we are younger and our bodies are strong and agile, but sooner or later, everyone gets old. As Mark Twain once said, “Do not complain about growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.”
3. Compassionate Leadership
Our thinking about leadership styles has certainly changed a lot over the last century. At one time, a good leader was defined as being strong, demanding, intolerant, and a bit abrasive. Something quite similar to a military general.
In the 21st century that way of thinking has evolved to become much different. Today, we have the concept of “compassionate leadership”. This style of leadership is characterized as being kind, flexible, and supportive.
The goal of the compassionate leader is to empower their team to excel and not only get the job done, but to also feel fulfilled and valued as human beings. So, when members of the team are struggling with meeting a deadline, a compassionate leader will seek to find out why.
The motivation of employees doesn’t come from threats and abusive language, but rather from knowing that your boss cares and wants to help.
4. Helping the Homeless
Seeing the homeless can be a heart-wrenching moment. The people we see are at rock bottom and may be victims of many tragedies in their lives. Some may come from unsafe families, some may have escaped from trouble, while others may be veterans that suffer from PTSD.
These scenarios will no doubt make us feel a deep sadness. That is called sympathy. However, if we take action and offer to buy them a meal or a winter coat, that will qualify as an act of compassion (as well as being an example of altruism). Feeling is easy, but then doing something to help is the hard part.
5. Becoming an ICU Nurse
Helping the homeless is a nice gesture, but it is fleeting. Devoting one’s career to helping people during their darkest times is taking compassion to a whole other level. Theare are few jobs in the world that are more difficult than working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a hospital.
Patients are often in their last moments of life. Loved ones are in their deepest states of sorrow and despair. Circumstances can be bleak and the inevitable can be just a matter of time.
Being able to talk to the loved ones of those about to pass takes a special kind of character. One must be able to show compassion when delivering the worst news of people’s lives.
6. Opening the Door for Someone
Seeing a single mom, or a single dad, struggling to open a door with a child in their arms is a daily occurrence at the local supermarket. It’s surprising how many people just walk on by and don’t even notice. Or, maybe they notice but it just doesn’t register to them to offer a helping hand.
Fortunately, some of us might be cognizant enough, and compassionate enough, to actually help. Just holding the door open for a few seconds so they can make their way through is all we need to do.
It’s a small gesture but if you believe in the butterfly effect, that positive energy can have a cumulative ripple that eventually cascades into world peace. Or, maybe not.
7. Helping a Distressed Colleague
Helping a distressed colleague finish an important report is not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about being compassionate. The workplace is often a cutthroat arena where everyone around us represents a competitor that we need to defeat. That’s the way to climb the corporate ladder and advance our career.
However, if the organization tries to foster a culture of teamwork in which everyone works together for the larger good, such acts of compassion are commonplace. There are many examples of companies that have transformed their cultures and practice what is called a “share of heart” (Sisodia, Wolfe, & Sheth, 2003).
These are places of work where employees are viewed from a different perspective. The company tries to help them find a higher meaning in their lives, not just more possessions.
8. Just Being There
Sometimes the only thing that a person needs from another human being is for them to just be there. Life can be difficult sometimes. Failures can mount. Marriages can disintegrate. Finances can become depleted. Tragedies can strike loved ones. The list can go on, and on.
In those moments, showing compassion can have a tremendous impact on someone’s life at just the right time. Sometimes all a person needs is to just have someone listen to them; someone to validate their feelings and provide emotional support.
We can offer all of this for free and it doesn’t cost us anything at all. But what it gives to another human being can be priceless.
9. Becoming a Veterinarian
Becoming a vet is clearly a career of compassion that demonstrates your strong personal values. Helping sick animals takes a caring personality and warm-hearted soul. The job usually involves making sure various pets are vaccinated and have all of their government-required shots up-to-date.
However, occasionally a dangerously ill animal will require emergency care. That could be the result of a car accident or abusive owner. Nonetheless, the animal will be in dire straits and in need of help. Surgery may even be necessary.
That kind of care means that vets have to undergo many years of advanced training. In many Western countries, it can take anywhere from 3-5 years to become a vet, after obtaining a 4-year undergraduate degree. The financial costs are fairly high as well.
So, for this profession of compassion, it takes a big commitment of time and money to achieve.
10. Being Compassionate in a Marriage
If there is any place where compassion should be the easiest to display, then it would be in a marriage. The wedding vows make it clear that it is a commitment for life, through good times and bad, forever.
And then reality comes knocking. After saying “I do” and living together, things can get a bit rough. We get to see our better-halves in their most unflattering moments. Sometimes their idiosyncrasies can become extremely irritating.
This is why learning how to practice compassion in a marriage can be so valuable. Sometimes just listening, without judgement and without trying to problem-solve, are all it takes. A gentle touch or a thoughtful gesture are the little things that can really help a marriage last.
11. Having High Emotional Intelligence
The more technology takes hold of every aspect of our lives, the more we need compassionate people in the world.
So, what exactly is a compassionate person? There are a few main attributes that a compassionate person possesses. For instance, being considerate of others and letting them know they are important. We do this by listening; by looking them in the eye; and by giving them our full attention when in a conversation (yes, that means not looking at our phone, at all).
We can also communicate with others in a heartfelt way. In a way that is genuine and sincere, that doesn’t involve any form of manipulation or ulterior motive. Being a “real” person is something that is lacking in a cold world of high-achievers and corporate ladder climbers.
The more time we spend online, without direct contact with other human beings, the more scarce compassionate people will become.
12. The Toddler Hug
For those that work in a childcare setting or have children themselves, you may have witnessed the following scenario: one toddler is upset and crying about something, most likely because a child is not sharing a toy or some other traumatic event, and another toddler will approach and give them a gentle hug. They might even try to give them a sticker or another toy to play with.
This is a true act of compati. It combines sympathy and the actionable component of sticker- giving. On a slightly deeper level of analysis, it also speaks to the great nature/nurture debate. This situation provides evidence for the nature side of the equation. Unless you are a real cynic and want to argue that the child is just imitating behavior they have seen elsewhere.
Seeing this scenario unfold right before your eyes can restore your faith in humanity.
13. Offering Forgiveness
Forgiveness is often a follow-on action after you feel compassion. It occurs when you decide not to hold someone’s mistakes against them because you see the humanity within them. You decide they deserve a second chance.
It is also a central concept in many religions, including Christianity. Christians believe Jesus can offer forgiveness if we ask for it. In Catholicism, this takes the form of a confession to a priest.
In fact, the act of Jesus dying on the cross is believed to be his act of compassion for humans who, despite failing God, were still loved by him so he wanted to save them.
14. Animal Compassion
Many animals also experience compassion. We often see examples online of animals who have rescued other animals, adopted different species, or shown care for babies.
It’s not uncommon for family pets to love their owners and even the babies within the family. The family dog, for example, might act gently around the baby of the house, knowing that it’s vulnerable and needs to be cared for.
Similarly, it’s not uncommon for dolphins to experience compassion. As some of the smartest animals on earth, dolphins experience complex emotions. These mean that dolphins will sometimes attempt to rescue their fellow exhausted dolphins by holding them up in the water so they can breathe and don’t drown.
15. Presidential Pardons
In many political systems, including that of the United States of America, presidents can make the decision to pardon prisoners. This is a political mechanism that allows people to be let off, despite having been convicted by a court, in extraordinary circumstances.
Presidential pardons regularly occur when the president feels special compassion for the person who has been convicted or their family. The person may have shown sincere contrition, been the subject of a particularly harshly judgment, or ill. In these situations, the president can show compassion for the person and pardon them, allowing them to return to their freedom and their families.
As an ethical behavior, compassion is similar to sympathy, but adds a “take action” component. Whereas feeling sympathy for another person’s predicament involves a genuine emotional response, compassion also includes the motivation to do something to help.
It is actually quite easy to show compassion. We can do this by engaging in very simple gestures such as opening the door for someone or helping them pick-up the groceries they spilled on the parking lot.
Or, we can show compassion by engaging in a lifelong career in a profession that involves caring for animals such as becoming a vet. Even large corporations are recognizing the value of compassion by fostering a work culture in which employees feel valued and leaders help them achieve personal fulfillment.
Compassion is an attribute we can all learn to appreciate, especially in our own moments of need.
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Lauckner, C., Hill, M., & Ingram, L. (2018). An exploratory study of the relationship between social technology use and depression among college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 34, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/87568225.2018.1508396
Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., & Rogge, R. D. (2017). Compassionate acts and everyday emotional well-being among newlyweds. Emotion, 17(4), 751–763. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000281
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