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April – May 2024 : Compassion READ ONLINE


What's in a word?

April 01 2024
A hyper detailed drawing by Emily Rose Markovic. © Homeless Diamonds A hyper detailed drawing by Emily Rose Markovic. © Homeless Diamonds

Searching for the definition of compassion and considering its importance to the homeless community. By Mat Amp

Language is a dynamic and fluid aspect of human communication and its evolution is an ongoing process that dictionaries may struggle to keep pace with. For instance, I know a lot of happy lesbians and homosexuals but I’m pretty sure that that’s not why they’re known as gay.

Dictionaries offer the best guess of closeted academics to offer a kind of average meaning for words, regardless of context, but the changing definitions they offer, along with the broader interpretations we find, can sometimes give us interesting insights into the development of the way we think as individuals and as a society. Despite the different definitions we can find out there for the word compassion, they all focus on the process of connecting with someone’s suffering and being motivated to help them as a result.

Peer Power’s definition states: “The sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; as in the victims should be treated with compassion.”

For me at least, the words pity, sympathy and victim seem severely dated. In my version of the word the connection fuelling any act of true compassion has to be empathetic in nature rather than sympathetic, with people offered respect rather than pity.

According to Elizabeth Perry, writing in What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy on, “there’s one big difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy involves feeling what someone else feels, while sympathy doesn't. Sympathy instead involves understanding someone else's emotions but from your own perspective.”

It didn’t surprise me then, to find out that modern websites discussing human behaviour in depth seem to focus more on empathy and respect rather than sympathy and pity when it comes to forming the sort of connection that fuels true compassion. This more up-to-date thinking about compassion tends to talk about empathy as an essential component of it.

But if empathy is such an important element in truly connecting to people so we can effectively help, how does it differ from compassion?

“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,” according to the Global Compassion Coalition.

And this is so important when it comes to shaping homeless services, because you can’t start to know how to help people unless you know what they need. Just hearing people’s words is not enough. You have to empathise with the person to understand the problem. If you truly empathise, then compassion should organically follow and in turn the help that compassion then motivates. To put it simply, empathy produces understanding and compassion which in turn produces the type of help people want. Sympathy and pity, on the other hand, lead you to give people the type of help you think they want rather than the type of help they actually need.

There are a shedload of definitions out there for compassion but I like the idea of looking at Wikipedia because it’s a dictionary with the potential to be edited by one and all. It may not always hit the nail squarely on the head but in this case it certainly does. The people’s encyclopedia has compassion down as: “…the social feeling that motivates people to go out of their way to relieve the physical, mental, or emotional pains of others and themselves. Compassion is sensitivity to the emotional aspects of the suffering of others and the desire to do something about it.”

While I jive with this definition, there is still an element of it that doesn’t reflect the way we offer understanding and compassion in the modern world. Unlike empathy, which offers connection on both a positive and negative level, compassion is directly linked to suffering.

Take Greater Good Mag’s definition: “Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together.’ It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

If the primary difference between the words empathy and compassion is that compassion involves action, then there is no word to describe the desire to help someone by relating to their positive emotions. It’s like we are saying that people who need our help are 100% broken with nothing positive to relate to, which sounds like the religious concept of original sin, rooted in the idea of a suffering soul that needs the healing balm of the Lord’s forgiveness. We are very quickly back to that ‘pity the wretched’ model of giving, with the compassionate giver offering the answer.

There is a modern school of thought that encourages those people working in the homeless sector not to connect on an empathetic level because of the dangers of compassion fatigue aka vicarious trauma. If we get too close to people we get overwhelmed, the thinking goes. But, although these are real problems, it’s my observation that more often than not, ‘apathy’ replaces empathy when people are frustrated by a lack of support from the system that results in not seeing their efforts translated into change.

Perhaps if we framed compassion in a different way we might have more success in helping people. If we applied compassion by connecting with positive emotions as well as talking about difficult issues, then we would be able to learn about people’s strengths and encourage them to utilise those strengths to help themselves with their issues. Instead of helping someone with a single issue now to temporarily alleviate their suffering, we could empower them to help themselves with all manner of issues they have suffered through in the past and still have to deal with in the present. It is my view that, delivered correctly, compassion empowers both the giver and the receiver as we learn about, and therefore from, each other.  And if we are helping others in a meaningful way we will always be learning about ourselves because we are communicating not preaching.

And this is why the definition of words is important. If we can understand compassion, this word that we are told is so central to our humanity from the day we pop out of our mum squealing and kicking and covered in blood, in a holistic way, then we are more likely to utilise it effectively.
Hopefully in 10 years’ time we will open a dictionary to look up the word compassion and find this:

“The desire to offer assistance to someone as the result of an empathetic connection, utilising the strengths of both parties in order to deliver the most effective help, both now and in the future.”