What is Compassion?

Compassion is not the same thing as empathy.

In moral and political debates, our positions often reflect our choice of whom to empathize with. We might feel empathy with minorities abused and killed by law enforcement—or with the police themselves, whose lives are often in peril. With minority students who can’t get into college—or with white students turned away even though they have better grades. Do you empathize with the mother of a toddler who shoots himself with a handgun? Or with a woman who is raped because she is forbidden to buy a gun to defend herself? With the Syrian refugee who just wants to start a new life, or the American who loses his job to an immigrant? – Paul Bloom of the Wallstreet Journal

CompassionThe media will often present us with individuals who have been the victims of this or that situation. While we may be tempted to empathize, to share in that person’s outrage or despair, we have to realize that there is often another side to the story and knee-jerk reactions can simply shift the burden from one party to another. Under a system of representative government, we all bear some amount of responsibility for decision-making. Certainly, at the highest levels of government, our voices are condensed into just a few representatives, but that does not change the fact that we are involved in the decision-making process.

It may be that a little more compassion and a little less empathy may be in order. Care about everyone involved because it is the most humane thing to do, but do not let yourself lose sight of sound reason and compassion in feeling the feelings of those involved.

I believe that having compassion for someone involves more than putting yourself in their place and genuinely wanting to understand or even help them. It involves beginning to have a totally different perspective when it comes to how you perceive others. For example, instead of assuming that the reason someone has done something that hurts you is because they are selfish or inconsiderate, assume instead that they had a good reason for doing it. – Beverly Engel of

Not only is compassion a powerful force in our personal lives and our politics, it can also be an invaluable asset in the workplace:

Compassion and curiosity increase employee loyalty and trust. Research has shown that feelings of warmth and positive relationships at work have a greater say over employee loyalty than the size of their paycheck. In particular, a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University shows that the more employees look up to their leaders and are moved by their compassion or kindness (a state he terms elevation), the more loyal they become to him or her. So if you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you. – Emma Seppala of the Harvard Business Review

There are a variety of arenas in which we might find ourselves challenged to be more compassionate.

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Political Beliefs Affiliation

politics and compassionPolitical partisanship has only seemed to escalate in recent years. Consider these troubling conclusions described by Alan Greenblatt of National Pubilc Radio:

A recent Stanford University study found that people are more likely to have hostile feelings toward people of the other party than members of another race. The percentage of parents who say they would disapprove of their children marrying someone from the other party has shot up from 5 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 2010.

While people of various political persuasions can behave terribly and be less than thoughtful, there are also critical, creative, and compassionate people on different sides of most issues. Practicing political compassion means understanding the best thinking the other side has to offer while rejecting bad thinking even when you like its conclusions.


Flags Nationality CompassionThe reality of the world today is that the economies of the various nations of the world are linked together and what impacts one country can affect others. Different countries also have different laws and customs. It may be hard to understand news coming out of other countries, but it is important to remember that where you live can shape your values, priorities, and views.


ReligionReligion can be a touchy subject, so much so that it can be tempting to remove religion from the public sphere entirely. In the interest of getting along, well-intentioned people have stressed the essential agreement of world religions on many things while minimizing the reality that religions have real and significant differences.

Not only are different religions actually different, they have also played an important role in shaping societies across the world. To ignore the impact of religion on people and cultures is irresponsible. Equally dangerous, however, is the practice of reducing a person to a stereotype of his or her religion or lack thereof. Misconceptions abound about religious and nonreligious people and those misconceptions are not helpful.

The compassionate approach to religion or irreligion is to be open-minded, but skeptical. There is no need to accept the entirety of a person’s beliefs and practices to treat that person with compassion. Let individuals and communities speak for themselves as to what they believe.


Race and CompassionThe American Anthropological Association makes an important point about race from a scientific perspective: that it’s not really real. It is true that there is a great range of diversity in human physical characteristics, but attempts to lump together physical traits into racial categories are scientifically unsound.

This bad science has, over the last few hundred years, contributed to social and economic divisions that make it difficult to recognize that race is not real in a physical or biological sense. The cultural traits of various groups have nothing to do with their race, and everything to do with their environment and raising.

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