The following blog post is taken from an ethics speech that Upper School Learning Specialist Emily Howe delivered to students and faculty. She shares why she believes there are distinct characteristics to the value of "compassion" that help people feel understood and supported in their greatest time of need.
Friday evening is typically movie night in our house. My two-and-a-half year olds sit still for quite a while as long as there is popcorn involved. This past Friday we were looking for a holiday movie to watch and we stumbled upon A Christmas Carol... the Mickey Mouse version, of course. It was very good timing! If you're familiar with the story, you know that Mr. Scrooge lacks many characteristics that we've talked about this year. For instance, "gratitude": he has so much yet doesn't appreciate it. "Kindness": he is unkind to those in his life and those he passes along the way. And "compassion," which is what we're going to talk more about today.
When I think about the word "compassion" I always hear the word "empathy," which makes sense as they both involve taking the perspective of and feeling another person's emotions. Compassion though, by definition, goes a little further in that. Not only do you 'feel' for a person but also desire to help relieve their suffering.
People handle situations differently. What suffering and difficulty looks like for one person will look different for another. In most situations, you won't actually 'feel their pain' or know exactly what it's like to be in their position. But that doesn't mean you don't have anything to offer. Two of the greatest things you can do for someone is to 1.) Acknowledge their pain and 2.) "To be there." These two things are compassion at the most basic and fundamental level. But, something so simple can be so effective and important to the recipient. I'll give you a little glimpse into why I say that...
Some of you may know, but I lost my father to cancer over the summer. I am an only child and I was a daddy's girl to the core. So, when he got sick, I put all of my energy into trying to remain positive and continuing to share as many experiences and memories with him as possible. During that time and after his passing – a time of extreme personal sadness – I received so many gestures of kindness and compassion. No one built me a new house or left me a car with a bow on it in my driveway. Don't get me wrong, both of those sound nice, but those are both not reasonable and not what I needed at that moment.
I think that is an essential piece to compassion – not just a giving of 'things' but an attempt to understand and to support accordingly – often with time or small gestures. For me, that came in the form of letters from family and friends – some of whom didn't even know my dad. Some people sent meals, some offered to babysit my kids so my husband and I could have time to ourselves or to get things in order, our neighbors cut our grass, and more. All of these were small gestures that, of course, wouldn't completely relieve my sadness over the loss of my father but gave me the "permission" and space to grieve yet still hold on to my life. That was exactly what I needed! While many did not have direct experience with that type of loss, I felt cared for – and I think that is what compassion is about.
I've mentioned a couple of times that we handle situations differently. No two situations are going to be exactly the same – we each have different experiences to draw on to help us help others. There may be a lot of "differences." However, there is one theme that is consistent. While we all have differences, we do all fit into one category: human. It seems so simple when you say it like that, but I do think it's something we lose sight of at times. We all encounter hardship and sadness at some point and all have a desire for that feeling to be relieved or lessened, which is a hard thing to do all on your own. Compassion comes in many shapes and sizes I would be remiss if I didn't mention that we've seen a lot of it within our own community. It's really special.
To finish up, let's circle back to Friday movie night. Mr. Scrooge (played by Donald Duck, if you need a visual) is an extreme example of someone who is only concerned with himself. Let's hope we don't see ourselves in him. But, use the story as a reminder to be kind to one another, be grateful for what we have and to do our best to demonstrate compassion.