Habits of the Heart: Compassion

I’ve been reflecting on some of the more negative habits of the heart in recent weeks, including fear and anger. Now I want to focus on a couple of alternatives that might serve as antidotes to the darker side of those habits, beginning with compassion.

Compassion means to feel for people in a way that wants to help relieve their suffering. The feeling comes naturally to most of us when we see another person in pain. Compassion prompts us to pick up babies when they cry, reassure children when mean kids make fun of them, and stand by grownup friends going through hard times.

Compassion helps calm people’s fears at the outset by showing them that they are not alone. Isolation can be terrifying to social creatures like ourselves, especially when we’re struggling, so it’s reassuring just to have another thoughtful person around. Counselors know that we can’t often fix people’s problems, but a compassionate listening presence may bring hopefulness and strength for them to find their own solutions.

If compassion helps to alleviate other people’s fears, it can also help to defuse our own anger. That’s less obvious, but no less true. Compassion syphons off some of anger’s force by seeing another person not simply as a one-dimensional offender but as a fellow human being with faults and flaws that may be, deep down, not all that different from our own.

Other people might do bad things that we would never do, though psychologists are familiar with the dynamics of “projection,” when people take out their anger on another person for doing precisely the sorts of things they themselves do but can’t admit. Still, even when people behave in ways that we ourselves never would, the underground springs of their behavior—pride, vanity, insecurity, egocentricity, etc.—are familiar enough to all of us, even if they rise to the surface in different forms.

Compassion comes naturally to most of us when we see individuals suffering through no fault of their own, but the scope of our compassion is limited unless we work to strengthen it. Narcissists and sociopaths notoriously lack fellow feeling, but “compassion fatigue” sets in quickly enough for everyone else. One person suffering nearby evokes our compassion and response. Ten people suffering in the next community may be more than we’re willing to respond to personally, and ten thousand refugees abroad are simply too far beyond the reach of most people’s readiness to act.

Compassion can be strengthened, though, when we practice until it becomes habitual. After a while, whole populations who suffer are no longer just abstract numbers but groups of individuals, each of whom matters, so that we’re willing to work collectively on their behalf in ways we could never accomplish on our own.

When compassion becomes a habit of the heart, even many of those who offend us turn out to be people with whom we can find some common ground and work towards reconciliation and redemption. God, after all, has compassion on all of us, and the Spirit of God can create in us a new heart whose habits are more like the habits of Jesus.

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