In ‘The Book of Joy’ – conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – they describe empathy as just feeling for someone and compassion as taking the extra step and saying, ‘What can I do to help?’ I love this distinction because it clarifies something I was told a long time ago by some people who had physical disabilities: ‘We don’t want your pity, sympathy or even empathy – it doesn’t help us to be who we can be.’
I learnt by experimentation how to move from sympathy or empathy to compassion with them and got roundly told off if I got it wrong! I remember one young woman who wanted to go to the toilet. I took her there, and lifted her out of the wheelchair to sit her on the toilet, but she was quite heavy and I lost my grip on her. She slid down between the toilet and the wall of the cubicle. I was horrified, and kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Dorcas looked at me and said, ‘Have another go and for goodness’ sake laugh – I must look very funny stuck in this position!’ Wow!! She showed me that I was not reacting as I would if she were my friend, but with pity for her predicament and guilt for my part in making it worse. I wasn’t allowing either her or me to be just humans.
Acting with compassion doesn’t have to be a big thing. You don’t have to volunteer to go into a war zone and help those injured, but you do have to remember that small things can help others and show our compassion with them as fellow human beings.
- Listen when someone wants to tell you about something with your full attention
- Freshen up the pillows of someone who is ill in bed and hold their hand
- Help someone pick up their stuff if they’ve dropped their shopping bag
- Remind the mum whose child is having a tantrum in the supermarket that it does get better as they get older, hopefully!
- Have a conversation with the person who says good morning at the bus stop – don’t just look the other way
- Hold the door open for that person behind you who is in a rush and looking agitated
- And if you don’t know what to do that would help, ask the person concerned.
All these little acts of kindness and recognition add up to a lot of compassion, and moreover, they are infectious. If you take that small action, often others will do the same.
And don’t forget to show the same compassion for yourself. If you’re feeling miserable or irritated, or unhappy, or rushed, what can you do to help yourself? We can only be as compassionate with others as we are with ourselves, so start by helping yourself to be who you really are.