A Kompass to Kompassion

compassion kindness

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

Kristin TruempyKristen 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.

Discovering self-compassion at age 57


Guest article by Franca De Caria-Fagan. 

The idea of practicing self-compassion is not easy for me to consider. When I think of it, like I have now and then, I find myself dismissing it quickly, as if spitting out a bitter concoction meant to heal my flu overnight.

I am at a life crossroads right now. A 57-year-old version. Not as romantic in theory as when I was in my late 30s, or early 40s. There seemed to be more cheerleaders then, and more hands reaching out to support me. Of course, there is also more darn baggage to carry this time! 

The biggest of all is a neon sign over my head, blinking maniacally like those crazy Christmas lights. It reads: “failure.” A simple word. Expressive. Telling. “Thanks, failure, nice of you to drop by…l was just starting to, well, think you’d forgotten where I live.”

I am ending a 16-year relationship. To be honest, it ended long ago. I just hung on. I was still there holding on to the rafters, barely surviving emotionally. Years of excuses to myself. Did I say excuses or self-compromise? Years of self-compromise. Did I say self-compromise or dishonesty? Years of dishonesty to my heart.

My problem: I did not want to face the pain of being alone, feeling I did not succeed, feeling like a failure. None of my coworkers or friends shared this torturous embarrassment. They all appeared to have loving, supportive husbands. They were deeply committed. Happy, emotionally fulfilled. They belonged to an exclusive club that I couldn’t be part of. Secretly, I felt inferior to them. Depending on which team of friends I was trying to gain support from, I talked about my situation differently. 

Needy and desperate version: “Oh my God, I’ve done everything for that man! I’ve been like a wife to him. I cleaned, did laundry, cooked, shopped – what didn’t I do for him? Whyyyy won’t he commit to me!”

Cool and nonchalant version: “Oh, I don’t know. Whatever. I’m fine. I mean, we have companionship. If we got married, it would wreck everything – guaranteed. I think staying uncommitted keeps it fresh. I’m pretty happy with the way things are. Really.”

Unauthentic version for my boyfriend: “I love you. I understand. You are afraid. It’s okay. I can live like this forever, uncommitted. We are still happy. I love you. It’s all okay. We should feel blessed we have anything at all. No need to be greedy!”

Poor team of friends. Poor boyfriend. Poor me. If only I had known about positive psychology and the science of happiness at the time. I could have been authentic – I could have had just one version of thoughts and feelings to deal with.

Being an actor in your own home is easy when you play a part. But finally, in my home, it seems the curtain is down. The play has ended. The props are packed. I am taking off my makeup and removing my costume. Plop! Who is this I see in the mirror, shyly looking back at me? I look different. Stronger. More certain. Resilient. Hopeful. Deserving. “Allow me to introduce myself,” self-compassion says to me as she extends a strong arm and shakes my hand. “What can I say?” I reply, as I shake her hand happily in return. “I’ve waited 57 years to meet you.”

The science of self-compassion was pioneered by Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. It means changing our inner dialogue from critical to supportive, understanding, and caring. With self-compassion, I notice the neon failure sign on my head is gone. It seems failure has left again, hand in hand with “unsuccessful.”

One day at a time. More and more, I hear the new version of myself: “I’m not perfect. But I am learning to love myself. Starting over will be hard, but I am confident I will be okay. Really.”

Photo by Flickr user Abhi_Ryan

FaganFranca De Caria-Fagan is a certified member of the Canadian Health Information Management Association. She has worked in hospital settings for 34 years. Franca enjoys yoga, writing, cooking, and gardening, though she has yet to purchase a good green thumb. The science of happiness excites, challenges, and motivates her.