Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.
Midot Series #10: Compassion
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com
The world needs compassion. Compassion for the less fortunate, relief to poverty-stricken areas, protesting injustice, listening to a friend in need, and myriad other ways to infuse life with the expansive spirit of caring for others.
Yet it is so difficult to maintain that focus. Our steadily evaporating trust in institutions – media, politics, business – exposes a wide “compassion gap” between the ideals we espouse and the reality of cruelly selfish behavior.
To understand how to access more compassion, let’s drill down to its root.
“Compassion” in Hebrew is rachmanut, derived from the word rechem– womb. The womb is the paradigm of caring for another’s totally dependent needs. In metaphysical terms, compassion is a similarly deep commitment to:
- feel the other’s reality
- identify their specific needs
- take action to assist
It starts with being motivated to care and reaching the point where you feel the other’s pain. When your spouse is feeling down, you don’t just stand at a distance and sympathize; rather, compassion is “perspective taking” – getting down into the person’s pit and genuinely feeling their pain. That’s the comfort of paying a shiva call – just being there for the mourner, sitting and not even saying word and just feeling the pain of loss. That itself help to alleviate the mourner’s pain.
Compassion is a core aspect of mindfulness, the state of constant presence in the moment. Your eyes are open to the reality in front of you – not checking your smartphone, not diverting your thoughts. You are giving your full attention with warmth and patience, and offering a caring and helpful response.
Some practical everyday examples:
- When a child is crying, feel how they must be afraid or hurt, and respond.
- When encountering a homeless person, feel what their life is like. Recognize their essential humanity, good heart and infinite potential as a child of God.
- When checking out at the supermarket, offer a kind word to the cashier.
In every interpersonal interaction, we have the choice to either connect or disconnect. When with friends, family, colleagues – or even alone in your thoughts – practice the mantra of “How can I be sensitive to what others are feeling?” As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed: “self-transcendence” forms the foundation of all healthy relationships.
Compassion is also a key component of Emotional Intelligence, which is a leading indicator of success in life. Those who are open, empathetic, flexible, generous, warm and connected are best positioned to accomplish their goals and influence others. There is something magnetically attractive about compassionate people.
God is defined as “compassionate toward all His creations.”1 One way we develop this trait, the Torah instructs, is to prevent pain to animals (Tzaar Baalei Chaim).2
All the more so must we show compassion, sensitivity and care to human beings, created in the image of God.3
In 19th century Kovno, Lithuania, the Jewish community center fell into disrepair, leaving the poor with nowhere to sleep. Various appeals for funds did not solve the problem. Sensing a lack of compassion, the community leader, Rabbi Yisrael Salant, began sleeping in the inadequate facility, pledging “to continue until it’s fixed” (which it promptly was).
One of God’s “13 attributes” addresses the need to uproot evil.4 Part of true compassion is working to stop violence, bullying, and all forms of exploitation and abuse. Passivity only enables the perpetrator to continue cruelly victimizing others.
After the sin of the Golden Calf – a messy situation of the Jewish people’s own doing – God revealed His default position, the essential “13 attributes of Rachamim.”5 God created within us the ability to perceive those qualities which He desired us to develop. Compassion, as an expression of our Divine soul, is a primary way to emulate God: “As He is compassionate, so shall you be compassionate.”6 By emulating Him, we achieve the ultimate pleasure of unity and connection.
Why So Difficult?
If compassion brings such great pleasure, why don’t we more proactively seek it?
Doing the right thing is not an easy choice – especially when it comes at steep personal cost. Imagine this awkward, frightening, and embarrassing situation:
In Genesis chapter 29, Jacob wants to marry Rachel and agrees to first work for seven years. Jacob pre-arranges a “passcode” to validate Rachel’s identity behind the veil. Yet when the wedding day finally arrives, it is secretly Leah – Rachel’s sister – wearing the veil and wedding dress!
What would we expect to happen next? With Leah unable to provide the password, Jacob would lift the veil, and the crowd would gasp as Leah runs from the room, crying and disgraced.
But that’s not how things worked out. Because Rachel had revealed the password to Leah.7 In order to spare her sister embarrassment, Rachel was willing to give up the husband she’d waited patiently for seven years! She understood that compassion brings greater pleasure and reward.
Human beings intuitively want to do the right thing. Rabbi E. E. Dessler famously said: More than we want to receive, we want to give. Because when we “invest” a bit of ourselves in another, we experience the pleasure of connecting beyond self. Through compassion, as our sphere of love and influence expands outward, we build a bond of unity.
Rabbi Aryeh Levine (20th century Jerusalem) accompanied his injured wife to the doctor. When asked the reason for the visit, he told the doctor: “Our leg hurts.” Rabbi Levine felt another’s pain as his own.
Neuroscientific research8 shows that compassion triggers brain activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate – the regions that register reward and gratification. As a wise man once said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”9
As an exercise to gauge your level of empathy, ask: If someone is publicly maligned, do I enjoy it, or do I feel that person’s pain?10
We are all painfully aware of today’s polarized political and social climate, with each half of society viewing the other half as certifiably insane! As we further entrench ourselves in one-sided media echo chambers, we become even more distanced from one another.
Compassionate means having an open mind and taking others’ ideas seriously. Some guidelines:
- Be open-minded and willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
- Strive to understand what is rationally true, not what you wish to be true.
- Recognize the consequences of your position, and that you are responsible for them.
- Validate others as thinking, rational beings capable of intelligent perspective different than your own.
- Ask sincere questions and listen with interest. “Be a judge, not a lawyer.”11
Try to understand the other position. Expose yourself to others’ political views by visiting various websites and listening to their expert speakers. You may have to bite your lip, but the result is worth it. The highest peace, said Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is peace between opposites.
The two most famous Talmudic disputants, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, argued about almost everything. Yet Jewish law follows Beit Hillel. Why? Because in the course of disagreement, Beit Hillel would always first summarize the opinion of Beit Shammai – “Is this what you’re trying to say?” – and only then state his own position. This way, Beit Hillel demonstrated a concern not just with being right, but seeking the truth that lied somewhere in between.
7 Tools for Compassion
Let’s get practical with these 7 tools for living with compassion:
- Unburden others – If someone has weight on their shoulders, don’t try to convince them there’s nothing to worry about, or that the situation is not so bad. Be empathetic and take practical action to help – babysit, grocery shop, etc.
- Be a good listener – One of the greatest gifts is to let another person be seen and heard. Turn off your cell phone. Send verbal and nonverbal signals: “I understand and I care.” Read their emotions and body language. Ask open-ended questions, even if the result is a 10-minute unburdening of the soul.
- Empower others – Offer guidance and encouragement to empower others, with no expectation of return. If someone is struggling in an area where you have strength, offer your knowledge and assistance. Become a mentor. Share a useful tool or tip to help them along. Best of all, help others identify their unique mission in life.
- Include others – People love the feeling of unity – being connected with others and part of a team. Introduce yourself to newcomers – neighbors, colleagues, etc. – and show interest in them personally. Organize creative team-building exercises and brainstorming meetings where everyone can collaborate by sharing, contributing, and feeling included.
- Find commonalities – Understand others by asking about their background, family and career. View your own experiences – both pains and success – as a means to empathize with others and spark connection/unity.
- Deep Feeling – To empathize with the suffering of others, imagine yourself in their shoes. When someone experiences suffering and pain, form a mental image as if it were happening to you. Just as you’d want to be helped in such a situation, do that for others.12
- Show gratitude – Become more sensitive to your surroundings by slowing down and expressing gratitude. As a result, you’ll discover more opportunities for caring and compassion. Cultivate compassion through volunteer service. Send a thank-you note at least once a week, expressing gratitude for someone who helped you in the past and continues to inspire.
There is no limit of opportunities to display compassion. Check out this man in the New York subway literally giving the shirt off his back to help a homeless man.