COMPASSION DISCUSSION GROUP SYNOPSIS
These are approximate recreations of the discussions in the conversation group, with protections for participants such as anonymity, and the removal of specific, identifying details. The quotes are not actual quotes, but are recollections of mine that reflect the various twists and turns of the conversation.
“I’m a nurse,” began a woman, tiredly. “I felt compassion so much when I was younger for my patients, and to be honest– I just can’t do it anymore. I made a decision to leave compassion behind in my work. It’s too taxing. I tried to be compassionate and I just ran out of it.”
“I definitely hear you. I am a social worker. Compassion is something that I can feel draining out of me over the years.”
“In Buddhism,” pipes up a woman wearing a college sweatshirt, “compassion is infinite. There is a teaching that there is no separation between the self and another. The religion is very much built around continuing to increase your capacity for compassion, and I have found it difficult to reconcile in my busy life. I wish my compassion were infinite, but I am working on it.”
“I think compassion must depend on your bandwidth,” someone offers, partly by way of soothing the last speaker. “When you are in a rush and hurrying somewhere, you don’t even think of stopping on the train if there’s an elderly person to help off the steps. You just rush onto the next thing. It’s like your brain can be too preoccupied to be compassionate.”
“Is compassion a finite resource?” I ask.
“Yes,” most of the group agrees.
“You just can’t sit around and feel every little thing. It isn’t possible. There isn’t time for that. You have to live. If you were compassionate toward every one and every thing, you could hardly eat a meal or sleep.”
“Unless you are a Buddhist,” someone quips, harmlessly.
“You can feel compassion for more than just people. I cry at commercials for the ASPCA, those are so hard for me to watch. Somehow, those commercials came to mind as I thought about compassion, I guess because that is when I remember feeling it the strongest as a direct result of something else.”
“I actually find my compassion is more in-tune when my life is out of whack. That sounds strange, but when I am really going through a hard time—like after a breakup or something, and I can hardly get off the couch, I am so sad—that’s when I feel the most compassion. For my own sadness, but also the sadnesses someone else might be feeling or telling me about. When I am down, I seem to feel double.”
“If other people show you compassion, you are likely to return it. I import and export packages for people, and people are frustrated and angry with me all day long. They call me up on the phone and scream and yell, call me names, put their own needs over everyone else’s, especially mine. I used to feel bad for them when something got lost or ruined, and now I just don’t care. I can’t care. It needs to go both ways.”
“I was sitting here thinking about the things I have compassion for. They are things that affect me or have previously affected me. I’m gay, and I volunteered at a non-profit suicide help line for LGBT people. I felt for them, I had compassion for them, probably because I related to them.”
“I suppose there is some selfishness in compassion,” says someone who has been looking at her watch prior to this moment. “You get a benefit from being compassionate, too. You might feel good about yourself, or feel like you made a difference to someone. That positive surge of emotion—if we didn’t get that feeling, would we be compassionate at all?”
After a long pause, someone speaks. “I suppose we probably wouldn’t. Don’t we do most things because of a personal feeling or benefit?”
“Can you be compassionate about something you have no personal connection to?” I ask. “Or are we just more compassionate about things we ARE connected to?”
“We are all connected through humanness. When I see something about starving or war-torn populations, I have no idea what it is like to be them. But I feel for them.”
“I think we definitely are more compassionate about things we know personally. I used to be homeless. So I stop and talk to homeless people I used to know, and some that I didn’t know. I know what they struggle with every day, and how they feel unseen and alone even as they struggle. Thousands of people stream by them every day in the city, and yet they have no one to really talk to. I can’t stop all the time, and in fact—I passed an old friend of mine living on the street on the way here because I was late—but I feel a real compassion for them.”
“With kids, you need to have boundaries on letting your compassion show. They say you feel everything your child feels times two, and you really do. But you can’t show them the range of emotions you feel from thrilled to terrified about the state of their lives. When your kid falls down and scrapes his knee, you are horrified inside. But you smile and say ‘uh oh!’ so he doesn’t think it is a big deal—as big of a deal as you think it is.”
“Is there other times when compassion should not be shown?”
A person who was quiet to this point begins to speak. “Compassion is a bad word for me. It makes me think of opening myself up and being way too vulnerable. If I feel compassion for someone, they know it—and they can exploit it. I feel it’s like a gazelle telling a lion ‘just go at it.’ I don’t want to get taken advantage of.”
“I have definitely been bitten before by letting myself feel compassion for others,” says a 20-something. “I let someone move in with me after they lost their job, right around the recession. They had gotten a divorce and lost their job at the same time, so I just felt terrible about their situation. Later, I found they had been paying for things with checks stolen from my checkbook. I learned to have guardrails around my compassion.”
“I’m a defense attorney.” A woman who had been on her Blackberry prior to the group beginning chimed in for the first time. “I definitely relate to having guardrails around compassion—but because it’s what my clients want from me. A big part of my job is listening to the client when I first take their case. When I was younger, I would listen to these stories—these heartbreaking stories, and I would find myself welling up with tears. The situations they were in are almost universally sad, but when I would start to show compassion, the strangest look would come over their faces… it was like mistrust. Narrowing of their eyes. As if, ‘you are supposed to be my lawyer, a professional, why are you getting emotional?’. It’s as if they think that will ruin their case or their chances. So I learned to turn it off. They didn’t want that from me.”
“That’s funny, it’s the opposite for me. I wish people were more compassionate in general at my office. I think people put on a face when they come to work—like Mr. Professional and Miss Professional. They forget they are humans making decisions that affect other people. They don’t act like they are real people with real emotions—I work in a bank. I could see my co-workers had no compassion for people who couldn’t pay their mortgages. They didn’t accept half-payments, they didn’t listen to reason, they didn’t care if paperwork was wrong, they just saw it as black and white. This was the center of people’s lives and there was no compassion around that.”
“Compassion isn’t something we are very good at in general,” someone says slowly. “I can’t say I think we are encouraged to be very compassionate in this culture at all.”
“I think compassion is something people move through too quickly. It’s like a moment or two when they feel for you, and then they are off and running, giving you solutions or trying to get you to think about what to do next. I wish compassion wasn’t a stage to pass through for some people.”
“Yeah. Sometimes I just wish you’d hear me, feel for me, and be in the moment with me.”
“Are there certain people in your lives you call when you need someone to show compassion?”
“You don’t want it from just anybody.”
“Especially when you really need it” – and the group emphatically nods.
“Compassion also isn’t always welcome, you know,” an older woman chimes in. “There’s plenty of times you are talking to someone and they are telling you how awful your situation is, or how bad they feel for you, and you just want them to listen. Or maybe they are the last person you want to feel this for you, like a co-worker or acquaintance.”
“I’ve been bothered recently by something like that,” a professional-20-something offered. “I had a co-worker, an acquaintance at best, whose husband suddenly died. They were busy planning their retirement together, they bought a second home, planning what should have been their most carefree years. And he died so fast. She came to work the next week and I thought, ‘what should I say? Anything at all, or should I act as if nothing happened? What is the best thing: acknowledgement or normalcy?’. I decided on normalcy and felt like a totally inauthentic person later. Why couldn’t I have been more compassionate?”
“Maybe doing nothing WAS the compassionate thing to do,” someone offered after a long pause. “Why do we always assume that showing compassion means DOING something? Maybe no action is the compassionate thing because she may have felt work was her only escape from her husband’s death.”
“Hmmm. Maybe you should have asked her? I mean, how odd but really nice it could have been to just knock on her door and say something simple…. like, ‘do you need anything?’. That way, if she wants to talk about it, she can. And if she doesn’t, she would say no.”
“Wow.” I say. “How often do we ask people what they need of us? Especially in situations where we don’t know how to show them compassion?”
“Maybe that question is an easy way to gauge what the compassionate route is.”
“I had that exact situation come up recently,” said an older woman. “I like my doctor quite a bit, but admittedly I am not a very good patient because I like to argue with my doctor. A nurse in his office once mentioned that his mother was sick, terminal. And I wondered as I waited for him whether to ask about his mother or not. But then I thought, I should let the doctor be a doctor. He is probably here because he wants to focus on something else, or maybe because loves being a doctor. Maybe I should just concentrate on being a better patient for him today. So I didn’t argue with him, even when I wanted to.” She smiles a wry smile.
The group pauses.
“Does every person have compassion as a given? Or is it more like a trait—some have it more than others?” I prompt.
“Some people do NOT have compassion. I can honestly say that,” the lawyer said flatly. “I have looked into their eyes and seen that people can be totally unremorseful. Some of these stories they tell are horrifyingly twisted—but to hear a client talk, it’s flat. No emotion, as if everything they did was logical, made perfect sense. And it would have, if the people involved were actually inanimate objects like toasters or paint cans. But they are people.”
“I think unless you have a mental illness, you have compassion. It’s built in, part of human wiring. You can’t escape it.”
“I don’t know,” someone began. Then stopped. “I guess you all might judge me, but I don’t feel much compassion for anything at all. I’m in my mid 30s… I guess I have always operated with a huge sense of urgency around my own life. I don’t think I pay attention to things outside myself well. I stream right by homeless people every day, or medical situations, you name it, living in the city. I don’t like this topic, probably because I don’t think I really have compassion. It makes me uncomfortable to say that, but I don’t.”
“It’s hard to show compassion in the city. Think of all the people every day you could show more compassion to. The volume, the size—it’s overwhelming. But I have lived in the country, and there, it’s the unwritten rules that you take care of people. When someone has a crisis, the whole town might try and help. It’s easier to think of compassion in smaller scale.”
“I agree. I have been struggling lately with how to devote my energy around compassion. I make it a point to take in news and I am a big advocate of social justice. There’s a million injustices every day, and I try to post as many articles and alerts as I can on Facebook about them to raise awareness. It’s the least I can do. But there’s so many, sometimes I even get anxiety about which ones to post! Where do I devote my energy to trying to make a positive change when there’s just so much? People sometimes complain about my posts, say it’s too much for them. It IS overwhelming, they aren’t wrong, it overwhelms me, too. It seems I am compassionate about injustices but I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know if having compassion matters when I feel I can’t make a difference.”
“Compassion always matters,” someone concludes after a slight pause. “If you think about it, most of the big changes that have happened in our history are influenced by compassion. Compassion is often the start of things changing for the better.”
“That’s something to think about,” I say to conclude, as time is up.
Like this discussion synopsis? Check out the conversation on Stereotypes.