Compassion, briefly stated, can be thought of as shared suffering and the desire to relieve it -- the feeling that your suffering is also my suffering, and that only by relieving both can we both be free of our burden. Mercy is compassion shown to those who see themselves as your enemies.
By way of a Christian example, Christ assuming and dying for the sins of humankind was an intensely compassionate act. He felt and shared in our suffering, and gave us the opportunity to relieve ourselves of that terrible weight through self-sacrifice and the blessings of faith.
Compassion is closely related to the feeling of empathy, which means "feeling with" or even "feeling into" another person. How can we develop this sort of mindset to live in a more Christlike way?
Empathy and compassion are mostly a matter of a few simple truths:
- Other people are real; they think and feel, just as we do ourselves.
- It's possible for us to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, with or without having been told.
- We are all children connected through the heart of God; when one of us suffers, the happiness of all of us decreases.
This may seem like common sense, but it's incredible how often we ignore the truth of this statement. Why are we able to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others? In part, because our lives are increasingly complicated and full, with every waking moment given over to fulfilling our wants and desires.
It takes a long time to train oneself to put the wants and desires of others above our own, but, as Jesus says in Matthew 5:42, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (NIV). In order to live more like Christ, we must raise ourselves to acknowledge the reality of others, and not shy from the discomfort of looking on the poor, the sick, or the people with whom we have disagreements or animosity.
Think of a child with something bitter in his mouth, or a woman distastefully brushing dirt from a countertop - we all have the ability to read people through things like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
The face, in particular, is the most expressive part of the body. Clinical psychologists have demonstrated that over 3000 distinct combinations of facial expressions carry emotional meaning, everything from smiles to frowns to flaring nostrils to a wrinkled brow or an arched eyebrow. Through the simple act of looking people in the face, we can better understand their thoughts and feelings.
1 Corinthians 12:26 tells us: " If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (NIV). The bible teaches us that sadness, depression, and frustration in our lives are not always of our own making -- when there are others suffering in the world, we, too, suffer with them, albeit in subtle and mysterious ways which we may not properly comprehend.
The plain truth of the matter is that we are happier and better satisfied when we are around other happy, well-satisfied people. Try introducing small acts of kindness into your life -- buy a coworker a sandwich without being asked, open the door for a stranger at the bank, or simple listen to someone who seems like they need to talk.
Donating to charity may help with your taxes, but probably won't do much for your heart. Actively helping others with a compassionate mindset is one of the best ways to make both of you happier and holier through the relief of your mutual suffering.
The Golden Rule
The three basic truths of compassion outlined above have been boiled down to a practical, fundamental precept, popularly known as "The Golden Rule": do to others what you would have them do to you. If we each take sensible action to improve the lives of those around us, all of our lives will improve together. This is the practical magic of the compassion Jesus so selflessly championed -- how are you working to follow in his footsteps?