Compassion: Our We versus Me Moments: Are We All in This Together?
Compassion. What does it mean? Is it a loving eye? A knowing heart? A nagging feeling? A certain action?
The idea for this blog came from an article by Corina Knoll in the New York Times about a homeless man called, “The Compassionate Guy” (June 5, 2023.) After graduating from Stanford University, David Breaux struggled to find his path — until he found his calling—compassion. He ended up on the streets and unfortunately was stabbed to death. But his story is one of compassion seen from various angles.
Knoll writes: “He had reimagined his purpose, becoming a fixture at the intersection of Third and C Streets in Davis, Calif. It was there that he held a notebook and offered passers-by a question: Would you care to share your definition of compassion? Over the years, Mr. Breaux made countless connections and grew a reputation as a communal therapist of sorts. Business owners revealed their anxieties. Students spoke of finals week. Unhappy mothers divulged marital problems. People poured out their hearts to him because he listened and cared. Supporters slipped him food, warm clothes and money. Compassion begat compassion.
The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs who was the minister of the New West End Synagogue in London, defined compassion on a website titled, “My Jewish Learning.” He wrote, “The word compassion itself derives from Latin and means ‘to suffer together.’" This transcends but requires other emotions such as sympathy, empathy and altruism. Compassion takes this trio of feelings and combines it with some element of help to stop the suffering. It requires action.
Does being compassionate make us good people or do we have to be good people to have it?
According to another article in the New Yorker Magazine, July 3, 2023, titled, “You Good?” author Nikhil Krishnan, offers “Aristotle’s guide to human flourishing.” Krishnan writes, “…the basic question is who we are, not what we do—has foundations in a work of Aristotle from the fourth century BC known as the Nicomachean Ethics. The right question,” the article states, “is not whether you did the right thing but, rather what sort of person you’re being.”
Most days we are self-focused, which was deepened during the pandemic when so many of us were socially isolated and afraid. Me, me, me. At other times, we worry about our jobs and whether we’re good at them, whether we’re living and eating healthily, about our relationships and having enough income and a good home and being able to afford all the frivolous sometimes silly things we crave. And then we see someone who is homeless and wandering the streets. Do we turn a cold shoulder and ignore them, feel sad for the person and move on or go a step further and do something to help? Do we really walk in their shoes?
How we show compassion varies. Some see on television news children and families who are homeless after a flood or pandemic and pull out the checkbook. Many might roll up their sleeves and help clean up after a tornado, assist in setting up a shelter or collecting food and supplies for those who have lost everything. Others might invite someone temporarily into their home like some did with the Ukrainians emigrating to the U.S. Some have even gone to Ukraine to help the civilians fight for their freedom and democracy.
Maybe, you’re a kidney or blood donor for a family member, friend or even a stranger. You see a hurt animal on the road, get out of your car and call for help. Someone is lying on the ground, and you administer CPR while asking someone nearby to call 911.
Maybe, it’s as simple as giving up your seat on the bus to someone who might be elderly or handicapped; being kind to a friend, or maybe even a stranger, or helping someone who is disabled climb up some steps. Or you carry groceries for an elderly neighbor or return a shopping cart to a stall for someone carrying a child and finding the juggling difficult. Or you know someone is in a deep dark hole after losing a job, a loved one or simply having a history of depression and going through a depressive episode? Do you try to spend time with the person to help even if you know that often doesn’t help?
When asking a group of peers about what compassion means to them and to describe a compassionate experience, one woman answered that she shows compassion by reading every night to her seriously ill partner who has trouble sleeping. She said, “The sound of my voice reading a good novel soothes him to sleep.”
Here’s what some others had to say:
Cynthia defines compassion as more than an altruistic act for others. She says it’s the giving of energy, compassion and heart. Cynthia adds that she has been on the receiving end of compassion after being laid off from her job. “It’s more than giving food and money, which are great, but it can also be as simple as thinking of others, making a call or sending an email or text to check up on someone you care about. It’s recognizing others. It's humanity.”
Ettalee says compassion shows concern for the well-being of others. Her example: One day when a grandson’s braces broke at camp, he had to come into New York City to get them fixed. His parents were out of town. So, grandma stepped in. Of course, Ettalee was concerned not only about getting his braces fixed but feeding her grandson after. They ate. Unbeknownst to Ettalee, when she got home, her grandson’s father had sent a huge bag of several sandwiches to her apartment. She ate a couple of the sandwiches, wrapped up the rest, and decided to give them to a homeless person who she sees walking the streets of the Upper West Side pushing a wagon. He walked by her, his wagon empty, and she casually dropped the sandwiches into it. She says with a smile, “I turned an aggravating situation into a mitzvah!”
Mandy says that compassion is indeed caring for someone other than oneself. Her compassion extends to animals and when she can, she will bring food to the pets of homeless people. She also volunteers with an organization that delivers food to homebound seniors. During Covid, the food would be delivered, and she would make a follow up phone call to check on the senior. She also been on the receiving end of someone’s compassion. One day, she had broken up with a guy and was standing on a subway platform sobbing when an MTA worker came up to her and asked what was wrong. “The worker said: “’I know you need a hug,’ and she gave me one.” It made Mandy feel so good at a terrible time.
Here are some ways we think show you can show meaningful compassion:
- Listen when someone is speaking, especially if they have a problem. Look them straight in the eye, try not to interrupt, don’t peek at your phone or ask questions until they’re done and don’t initially make suggestions. Your goal is to hear their words and feelings.
- Be a friend even if you think that friend might be needy or is often asking for help. We all need to know that someone cares, even if it at times annoys us.
- Respect others’ opinions, lifestyle and values even if you have nothing in common. Try to find common ground and make the other person feel valued. Important. You don’t have to agree but again listen and don’t criticize or insult. You can gently add your two cents if it seems appropriate.
- If you see a stranger with whom you make eye contact, acknowledge them and smile. Maybe compliment them on something like their scarf or shoes.
- Be charitable. Give money to causes you care about and also give of your time to volunteer. If you’re in a grocery line and the person in front doesn’t have enough money to pay for their groceries, offer to pay the difference if you can. And you don’t have to do these all the time, but you’ll get the gist of when it’s important. Also, have your guard up because you don’t want someone or some organization to take advantage of you.
- Pitch in and help. Don’t just stand there. You see someone struggling to open a car door, offer to help. It’s the little things that count. Barbara recently couldn’t pull out of a parking spot and a man walking by saw her struggling, offered to back out for her and got in her car and did so!
- Apologize for making a mistake or if you caused someone pain because of something you said or did. It’s a compassionate thing to do. And remember not to use any “buts” at all.
- Always try to take the high road and be kind. The money and time won’t make a difference in your life, we bet.
- Walk in the other person’s shoes if you are having a disagreement. That doesn’t mean you have to change your mind but try to see the situation from their point of view.
- When in doubt, be a mensch and do good.
Try out our ideas. For example, the next time you see someone hurting or struggling for whatever reason, think, stop, ask and do what you can to help. Or just step in at times without asking. You’ll boost your serotonin and sleep better at night.