Courage: The Heart of Compassion
By Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist
Compassion is a feeling AND an action.
Paul Gilbert, in his 2009 book The Compassionate Mind, emphasises this action component of compassion:
Compassion can be defined as behaviour that aims to nurture, look after, teach, guide, mentor, soothe, protect, offer feelings of acceptance and belonging – in order to benefit another person.
Many people feel compassion for another who they see is suffering. However, it seems that a fewer number of people act compassionately, especially when the person suffering is a stranger or someone from outside their family, friendship or cultural group.
It’s easy (or at least easier) to act compassionately towards someone we love. Picking up our own child when they fall and scrape their knee comes very naturally. So too, offering our best friend support during their time of need. Much more difficult is acting compassionately towards a stranger, let alone someone we actively don’t like or perhaps is our enemy.
But here in lies an opportunity for us all. As the Dalai Lama wrote:
And who creates such opportunities [to practice compassion]? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble, so if we truly wish to learn [compassion], we should consider enemies to be our best teacher!(www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion).
How can we cultivate compassion in our society so that we are all acting more compassionately, even if it is to people we don’t know or don’t like?
Many people would like to act compassionately, the desire is there. The reasons to be compassionate are many and varied, and we now know that compassion can benefit the person giving, as well as receiving, the compassionate action. And many people see helping others as important. In fact, lots of us would list kindness, helpfulness and compassion as important parts of our values system. We probably even often know what to do:
“I should just walk up to that man and see if he needs help!”
What quality, at the heart of compassion, helps us to move from feeling compassion for another human being who is suffering to taking action to relieve that suffering?
So often, the quality required to go ahead and take committed compassionate action is confidence, or more pointedly, courage.
The idea of stepping forward to help someone, especially a stranger, can evoke all sorts of fears: How will they react? What if they get angry at me? I might get abused or attacked! What if people think I’m being silly? They might judge me or laugh at me. What if it makes me late and my boss gets annoyed? It all might go bad for me.
Compassionate action takes a lot of courage. As Aristotle said:
Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.
Honesty can take courage. Loyalty can take courage. Authenticity can take courage. So too, compassion can take courage in order to push through our fear. We never really know what might happen next, and it can feel like there could be some sort of negative consequence. Once a person has a feeling of compassion, often the blocks to action are low confidence, self-consciousness, anxiety and fear. But as the Cowardly Lion learned in the Land of Oz, courage means taking action even in the face of fear.
And so it is with compassion: planning for little gestures to begin with, taking little steps, gradually building confidence with some small success, and taking opportunities that present around you for spontaneous acts of kindness, helpfulness and compassion. So why wait? Let’s get started!
10 small steps to build the courage for compassionate action:
1. Smile to a stranger in the street
2. Say “good morning” to the next person who crosses your path
3. Express sincere appreciation to a shop assistant
4. Let an anxious looking driver merge in front of you in traffic
5. Be patient with airline staff when planes are delayed
6. Offer help to a stranger struggling with a heavy load
7. Give directions to someone who might be lost
8. Write a note to someone, or their boss, about the great job they did
9. Offer some change when the person in front of you can’t quite pay the bill
10. Ask someone “Are you ok?” – and then really listen to their response.