In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is compassion.
I was inspired to write about compassion because recently one of my managers expressed her view that “too much compassion is paternalistic”. I already have no respect for her or her opinions, but I thought I’d take a closer look at why that statement is so completely messed up.
Google defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” I’m not satisfied with that definition, so on to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Ok, getting warmer.
Next, I turned to the entry on Wikipedia, which I was less than impressed by. It contains the line “Expression of compassion is prone to be hierarchical, paternalistic and controlling in responses.” The reference cited is Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind, and while I haven’t read that book yet, I have strong doubts about whether it would be likely to include a line like that.
With a Google search, I found the lines “Because compassion is concerned only with the suffering of others and can operate cognitively without sharing the other’s experience, we think it is prone to hierarchical responses, that is, providing care or support in a patronizing way placing the giver in a controlling position over the receiver… There is a long history of more dominant cultures having compassion for those who are suffering and expressing that compassion in paternalistic and controlling ways” in Expressing Empathy (lead author Elizabeth Segal).
None of this sits well with my own Buddhism-influenced views. From a Buddhist perspective, there are three elements of compassion: perceiving another’s suffering or need, emotionally connecting with the suffering need (i.e. empathy), and wishing to see that suffering relieved. Dr. Thupten Jinpa writes: “Compassion acknowledges the fundamental truth of our human condition that not all pain can be fixed.” It arises from a sense of shared humanity and shared concern.
There is a Buddhist meditation that involves extending the circle of concern, moving from wishing for the self to be free from suffering outwards to eventually include all beings. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of “tonglen” involves breathing in another’s suffering (while visualizing dark clouds or smoke), then releasing it and breathing out happiness and good fortune (visualizing white clouds and light).
In other traditions
Compassion turns up in many other religious/spiritual traditions. The Christian bible, in the book of Corinthians, describes God as the Father of Compassion.
In Judaism, Babylonian Talmud states “as God is gracious and compassionate, so you are to be gracious and compassionate.”
The Quran has only one chapter that doesn’t begin with “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful.”
Hinduism identifies both absolute and relative forms of compassion, with absolute being something deserved by all humans, and relative compassion pertaining to the difference between those who have been wronged and those who have done wrong.
So, is compassion paternalistic?
And what is my conclusion? I think that people who are already inclined to have paternalistic attitudes may offer compassion as an excuse to step in and solve problems the way they think they should be solved. While this may be presented to others as being compassionate, the genuine sentiment is not there, as the paternalistic person is actually serving their own needs.
True compassion is not paternalistic’ it’s held up as an ideal by multiple major spiritual traditions, and I’ll take that over paternalism any day.
What are your thoughts on the subject?