Guest article by Kristen Truempy
There is a problem with the Dalai Lama, our mother, and our grandmother. We idolize them as the kindest people on the planet, but unfortunately the discussion ends there. Chances are we can recall the names of more actors, singers, and supermodels than compassionate people. While it’s a quality that apparently everybody seeks in a partner, we as a society have made remarkably little effort to illuminate the nature of kindness and compassion.
It’s rewarding to investigate what compassion means to us as people. Where does it flourish, who embodies compassion, and how do they express it? Does compassion limit itself to people only? What evokes tender feelings in us – a readiness for compassion, so to speak? In which instances are we compassionate with ourselves? Who shaped our ideas about what compassion is? Are these ideas serving us? What are the dark sides of compassion?
While it’s great to participate in random acts of kindness, I would like to argue that understanding our relationship to kindness and compassion has even longer-lasting benefits. On an individual level, it is not that easy to keep compassion at the forefront of our mind if we only have a superficial understanding of it. Could you imagine what would happen if each and every one of us took learning about compassion as seriously as we take the Kardashians? (Even if you hate them, you probably know a lot more about them than you’d like to admit.) So what would keeping up with compassion look like?
1. Notice compassion
We would train ourselves to notice compassion in others and even in situations when nobody else is around. We would be aware of instances when compassion is not about doing stuff but about refraining from doing stuff: like when our boss cuts us some slack for frequently cursing or when someone gives us the benefit of the doubt. We would notice the compassion of the stranger in the bus who gets bumped into but then decides to apologize and smile for being in someone’s way, even if anger would have been appropriate.
2. Broaden our idea of compassion
Keeping up with compassion would also mean expanding our idea of what compassion is. The philosopher Alain de Botton, for example, said that paying taxes is an act of compassion. Whether this is true or not is not that important; the point is to question what counts as compassion. In my country, I am frequently grateful for the thoughtful people who constructed benches in nice places and who make sure that the area stays clean enough to enjoy the view in peace. They had a future-directed compassion for whoever was going to walk by and sit down to rest.
3. Look for opportunities for compassion
If we’d like to keep up with compassion, we would be genuinely interested in identifying situations when we could respond with compassion toward people, animals, the natural world, and, of course, ourselves. No change is too small and sometimes doing nothing at all is the most compassionate thing we can do, like refraining from asking a friend who is out of work how the job search is going. Sometimes questions meant to signal that we care can make the person feel worse, so not bringing up such topics can be an act of compassion.
4. Don’t be compassionate sometimes
We could also think about situations when compassion is hard or possibly even a bad idea. I have not yet found ways to react with compassion toward people at work who try to exert pressure to get something done quickly that has no objective reason to be rushed. It bums me out because there is no rational explanation and it happens over and over. Sometimes, compassion toward people who exert power over us could just end up making us suckers.
5. Be self-compassionate
If we genuinely try to keep up with compassion, it’s clearly not as simple as whether we’re a compassionate person or not. It’s about how often we succeed in being compassionate and how we can broaden our ability to think and act compassionately across different situations. What sets the Dalai Lama apart is not that he never has negative emotions or is never tempted to act without compassion. I am pretty sure he is confronted with these issues on a daily basis. However, as someone who has kept up with compassion all his life, he can snap out of that attitude faster and find the compassionate seed inside of himself – even when exceptionally negative circumstances would trip up the rest of us.
The Dalai Lama, our mother, and our grandmother should be celebrated for their compassionate behaviour. But it would be nice if we cared enough to know the names of more people, famous or not, who are role models for compassion.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Finetooth / CC BY-SA 3.0
Kristen Truempy accidentally discovered the strengths approach when she was 11 years old and captain of a girl’s soccer team. She used her skills of keen observation to discover each player’s talent, structured the practices accordingly, and a year later the team won the cup. In 2012, she had to admit to herself that this experience would not suffice to convince companies to pay her to set the strengths of their employees free, so she embarked on the adventure that is obtaining a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (and recently passed). She can be found at http://strengthsphoenix.com/listen.