Compassion in action

Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!

Quote from Psychology today, hat tip to Melissa.

When I was a volunteer just starting doing benefits tribunals, some of us met up in Edinburgh to discuss our cases. Each would start by describing the client’s situation, and each time a woman would drawl, “How Ahful! AHful!” I did not know who she was, she made no other contribution that I could see, and I hated her: we were taking practical action, and she seemed to be enjoying the feelings we evoked, even getting a mild high.

Compassion is seeking to change the situation, but it starts with the feeling. Only the feeling would motivate me to action.

I was driving home from a dance, and heard on the midnight news that Rwandan troops had attacked a Hutu refugee camp, which I later heard had been thought to harbour the Interahamwe. I screamed. News can be horrible, more likely producing a depressive apathetic withdrawal, but sometimes it gets under my skin. There was nothing I could do: I was doing good in the world elsewhere, and had to be satisfied with that.

I saw a beggar yesterday, who asked for money for food, and I refused her. I feel a similar depressive reaction, cutting off feeling from action.

Swanston does not have a homeless shelter, but when the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing three nights in a row a temporary shelter opens in the churches. Liz volunteers there. Three people came in, and after they closed their doors at 10pm the police brought in a Romanian man who had been working on building sites and had been attacked and injured while homeless. He is entitled to nothing. Later, the police called: they had stopped someone from jumping from a great height, and they wondered if the shelter could take him in. The volunteers discussed it, and decided they did not have the necessary mental health skills. There was nowhere else for the police to send him. We do what we can.

I feel more than I feel able to do.

El Greco, the agony in the garden

17 thoughts on “Compassion in action

  1. Claire, so many of your blog entries make me think more that most anything else that I read in a day. You are good for me. As much as I try, I could always be a bit more compassionate not just in my actions, but in my heart.
    I you have ever read any of my blog entries, you would see that I end each of them with a wish for others to spread some Love and happiness in their days journey. I really feel that if people are reminded whenever possible, to be a bit more compassionate in their daily lives, perhaps this may alleviate some of the hatred and anger our world seems so full of now.
    Perhaps you could read the “About Me” section of my blog and you will see what I am about.
    I try. I really try and you help me so much. I am very grateful. Lots of love, Julia Marshall


  2. I’ve read a few of your posts now and they are all thought-provoking. This is no exception. I think many of us grapple with this on a daily basis – what action can we or should we take.

    I can relate to what you describe as a “depressive reaction, cutting off feeling from action” when you refused the beggar money. I have often felt the same way. I used to have the internal, “they’ll only spend it on drugs” argument that Joan writes about, and still do to an extent. Lately though, I’ve taken to actually speaking to beggars – and more importantly – listening to them. I’ve noticed that their stories and personalities are diverse, even if the same themes keep coming up – a childhood in care being common.

    You write about feeling more than being able to act, and lately I wonder if the challenge is that we see “action” as meaning something specific and so don’t value other action as much. Going back to beggars – I used to think that the action I “should” be taking was to donate money, but perhaps talking with them is just as valuable. (That old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life,” comes to mind.) I’ve noticed that, not surprisingly, many beggars feel helpless, and so I’ve begun to check that they know of places they could get advice and consistent support.

    Thank you so much for joining in 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion!


    • Yvonne, it is wonderful to have you here. Your call to action, and what has come from it, is the best community-building initiative I have seen in blog-land. It does me good to think on these things.

      And yes. If I can think of more options, then I am more able to help. You are right.


  3. Yes oh yes how I relate to this. I find it so very easy to be jaded by the world. They are just not trying hard enough. Slowly through life I have come to understand more by being more open. And gosh forbid actually talking to homeless people. I used to work in probation and I saw how quickly things could go down hill for someone. We don’t have much but yet we still give and that baffles some people. I have a roof over my head food available and clothes.Just because we are tight , often not making it paycheck to paycheck but we have never been to the point where we don’t have something somewhere in the house to eat. and I just lost my train of thought so… I may be back later.


    • It is lovely to meet you. Thank you for visiting. You are welcome back if you like and I feel you said it already: understand more by being more open. You can stick them in a box: it must be their fault. And these people are all individuals, with individual stories.


  4. Feeling is the part that comes easy. Action and knowing what you are and are not capable of changing is the hard part, for sure. We cannot forget to also have self compassion and accept our limits. I love this post for encompassing all of that.


    • Welcome Jen. Thank you.

      It seems to me that if I feel, it may eventually provoke me to action. My mind is engaged, and may find action to take.

      Self-compassion comes first, and “Love your neighbour as yourself”- the golden rule recognises we cannot love others more. Self-love is the foundation for engaged action.


  5. Of course, compassion often involves an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. Empathy is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. And so, compassion although accompanied by the desire to change thing for the better for the person we feel compassionate with can often remain a desire rather than seeking change for seeking requires action where we see results materialised – not always can we seek to change things but feeling the desire that things are different makes us human too. It’s not always possible to help – the world is so filled with events and people and animals we feel compassion for – the ideal world would be when it comes to action-on-compassion that everyone and all our laws live on the foundations of benevolence, which of course I don’t see happening any time soon


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