Compassion: The Happiness Factor

"When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Message for the International Day of Happiness, 20 March 2013

Wow... an International Day of Happiness. How did I miss it? Oh yeah... I was giving a presentation on compassionate communication that day and hosting an overnight guest. I didn't have time to check the news. But it feels pretty good to know that in some small way I was unknowingly honoring the day by my actions.

The word 'compassion' comes from the root words 'com' (together) and 'pati' (to suffer) -- to suffer with. According to Webster's, it's about feeling another's pain with the desire to alleviate it. Often we can alleviate another's suffering simply by acknowledging their pain. Notice the word is alleviate, not fix. To alleviate suffering is to simply make it more bearable. 

Often, the most difficult place to offer compassion is within our own families. Here are some reasons why:

10 Obstacles to Empathic Communication
Some common forms of communication that block empathy and take the focus away from the speaker:
1. Giving Advice / Fixing: Tell the other person what you think they should do.
“I think you should leave your boyfriend and find somebody else to be with.”
2. Analyzing: Interpreting or evaluating a person’s behavior.
“I think you are taking this out on your ex-wife when you are actually frustrated about your divorce.”
3. Storytelling: Moving the focus away from the other and back to your own experience.
“I know just how you feel. This reminds me of a time that I…”
4. Sympathy: Either feeling sorry for the other, or sharing my own feelings about what they said.
“Oh, you poor thing… I feel so sad for you.”
5. Reassuring / Consoling: Trying to make the person “feel better” by telling them things will improve.
“You might be upset now, but I’m sure you will feel better soon.”
6. Shutting Down: Discounting a person’s feelings and trying to shift them in another direction.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” or, “There is no reason to feel that way!”
7. Correcting: Giving the person your opinion or belief about a situation.
“Wait a minute – I never said that!” or, “You don’t remember this accurately.”
8. Interrogating: Using questions to ‘figure out’ or change the person’s behavior.
“When did this begin?” or, “Why did you decide to do that?” or, “What got into you?”
9. Commiserating: Agreeing with the speaker’s judgments of others.
“I know what you mean – your cousin is one of the biggest jerks I have ever met!”
10. One-upping: Convincing the speaker that whatever they went through, you had it worse.
“You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me when I was in that situation!”

I admit I have been guilty of doing all of these at one time or another. It's not easy to offer empathy. However, it is easy to see how any of these ways of listening could make someone feel they weren't really being heard. Although compassion might be there, the way it's being expressed makes it difficult to recognize. Sometimes silence is the best response of all. Just listen.

This is Holy Week, a time when Christians all over the world focus their attention on the Passion, the suffering of Christ. Wrongfully accused, horrifically beaten, made to endure the incredible pain of death by crucifixion and yet he was still so full of compassion. He didn't try to defend himself. "Father, forgive them," he said. "They don't know what they're doing."

I want to be filled with that kind of compassion, don't you?  Open, oh open, my heart.