Pillars of Joy: Day 7 (Compassion)

“…compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

This is the seventh of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As he does in many other places, Abrams points to the exact meaning of a word in order to explore its complexity and nuance. In this case, he tells us that “compassion” literally means “suffering with.” To me, there is a distinct difference between sympathy (which is a only a step above pity) and compassion because the latter is based on this notion of co-suffering. Whereas sympathy, and even empathy to a point, seem to separate the observer from the sufferer, compassion reveals the connection between two living souls.

You may not know who John Donne is, but you have likely heard one of his most famous lines: “no man is an island.” According to Donne and the Dalai Lama, we are all inextricably bound to one another in some way, perhaps metaphysically. If so, then compassion is an interesting illustration of that connection. There must be a reason that another person’s happiness or pain could possibly become my own in some way.

Similar to his views on gratitude, the Dalai Lama believes, “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Again, this reveals a sort of paradox in which we can heal ourselves by focusing on others. To emphasize just how important this concept is, Abrams quotes the Dalai Lama repeating his refrain later, “the more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience.”

Though it may seem contradictory, especially in light of the Darwinian model of human nature many have come to accept, the Archbishop believes that we are actually wired for compassion. How could that be? Compassion seems like an evolutionary defect at best, or a terrible design flaw at worst. However, Tutu firmly believes that a sense of compassion is actually necessary for the level of cooperation that has enabled us to thrive as a species. There are plenty of scientific studies that reveal cooperation among other animals as well (see reciprocal altruism). At the risk of conflating the two terms, it seems pretty clear that compassion and cooperation are at least related.

Perhaps we are wired for compassion towards others, but certain people present very difficult challenges to that otherwise natural response. People who have wronged you in some way may be unlikely to elicit compassion from you, abusive partners in particular. However, it could be an important part of your own path to joy to recognize that abusive behavior often arises from a state of suffering. Rather than despising or just pitying your AP, try to see her as a wounded soul who deserves to be healed herself. Honestly, wouldn’t the best outcome be for her to find peace and live a happier, healthier life in which she is no longer abusive to you or others?


Though forgiveness basically boils down to letting the offender “off the hook,” compassion takes a step further and creates “a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.” This is how Abrams distinguishes between compassion and empathy, which is “simply feeling another’s emotion.” Think about your AP, or anyone who has hurt you, and you can probably identify how she is suffering in one way or another. To be clear, abusive behavior is never okay, but it can be very helpful to identify where it comes from. If your goal is to punish her, that’s an easy and rather unsatisfying path. If your goal is to be happy, try recognizing that everyone has room for improvement and the right to be treated as a person in the process.

Lastly, it is crucial to learn compassion for yourself, in the sense that you should want what’s best for you and remember that you deserve it. Self-pity is a terrible state to be in or to witness in others; self-compassion is a healthy state that is necessary for cultivating joy for yourself and those around you.

Next up: Generosity

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