What is Compassion?

When they hear about the global compassion movement, of which Plymouth is now a part, many people ask “but what, exactly, is compassion?”

According to neuroscientist and founder of Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education Dr James Doty, the scientific definition of compassion is “the recognition of the suffering of another with a motivational desire to alleviate that suffering”.

International character education programme the Virtues Project says “Compassion is deep empathy for another who is suffering or living with misfortune. It is understanding and caring, and a strong desire to ease their distress.”

The Charter for Compassion states “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures”

I have italicised certain passages to highlight the common theme here. That compassion is an emotional response, closely aligned to empathy, but that includes a call to action. It is not enough to feel empathy. We need to do something – to take compassionate action to address the suffering of the other person.

And what, exactly, our seeker of definitions might enquire, is suffering?

I don’t have a selection of quotes to define this one. But I think there is a spectrum. There are deep and traumatic experiences that cause extreme suffering and require compassion, and support. There are also less extreme experiences that happen to all of us, on a regular basis. It’s hard work being human; navigating the relationships, demands, disappointments, illnesses, pressures and stresses of everyday life. While these in no way equate to the traumatic experiences some people suffer, they still tend to wear us down, and require compassion. And, as Dr James will tell you, we all also benefit from being compassionate.

What if, every time we felt annoyed, irritated or infuriated by another person, we paused for a moment, and acknowledged that maybe they were having a bad day? What if, instead of snapping or reprimanding them and feeling resentment – which raises our own stress levels – we responded with compassion? We would feel better, they would feel better, and we would be modelling and practicing a way of making the world a better place.

Compassionate Plymouth seeks to recognise, connect and inspire the compassionate people of our city. That’s all of us. Everyone has the capacity, and instinct, for compassion.

But we need to practice, like we might practice playing the piano or perfecting a cartwheel. Acknowledging the small daily sufferings we all experience, and remembering to treat others – and ourselves – with compassion is a great start.


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