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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Robert W. Cole

Robert W. Cole
Managing Editor
and Senior Associate

For much of my life I figured that “empathy” and “compassion” were pretty much the same thing. My stunted understanding might have been summed up as “greeting-card compassion.” You know: “My heart is with you” and “You have my best wishes.” There, feel better now? Good.

A little research can work wonders, though. The folks at the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley informed me that:

"Compassion is not the same as empathy…, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help."

Ah, “include the desire to help.” Just as I thought I was getting somewhere, though, later in the same paragraph I was informed that “one can feel compassion without acting on it.” Doesn’t that suggest to you (as it did to me) that the two concepts are awfully darned close? Just about half a thought appears to separate empathy from compassion. I can fancy one side of myself saying to the other side, “Why, if I had dwelt on my compassionate impulse for another moment or two I would absolutely have acted on it!” And my more cynical side would surely have replied, snidely, “Thinking is easier than acting, buddy!” Which is true.

I believe that the gap between compassion and action has grown wider and wider in recent decades. The physical gap that often separates us from our loved ones—between me on the East Coast and my cousins who have lived all their lives on the West Coast—can easily result in a caring gap. Reaching out and touching someone (as AT&T urged us to do in the 1980’s) isn’t nearly as satisfying as walking next door and touching someone. To add to our difficulty in acting on compassion, we suffer daily from a glut of information about people in distress all around the globe. Compassion literally means “to suffer together”; among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. So whose distress is more worthy of our compassion—and thus our action to relieve it? Our family? The family across the street? A family whose distress went viral on Facebook (which can be regarded as an extended family for modern times)? A refugee family in Germany? How much compassion is enough?

Back to my research: Kristina Hulvershorn defines compassion as “an awareness of another’s suffering and a willingness to help address it.” These days, however, we have invented a host of new ways in which we can help others, even those at a great distance. I can sign online petitions to show my displeasure for behaviors that I deem hurtful to people in need (including myself). I can donate money online, as I did last week, to provide support for the DRW Boxing Club in Chicago, started by a friend of my youngest daughter. My resources are limited, though, which forces me to make decisions about what compassionate actions are most important to take. But still it’s action, which sprang from empathy and resulted in a compassionate act.

And, as it turns out, it’s action that is good for me! Which is, of course, immensely (if rather selfishly) satisfying. It seems that scientists mapping the biological basis of compassion discovered that it has a deep evolutionary purpose. This research revealed that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of our brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people. So feelings of compassion are beneficial to our health, and even to the well-being over time of our entire species.

For many years my favorite part of the Christmas season has been buying gifts that I absolutely know will give pleasure to people I love. And it turns out that such loving, empathetic, and maybe even compassionate acts are good for me too! Far out, as we used to say when I was a much younger and less-compassionate person. Far out indeed.

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