June 6, 2009

Compassion vs. Sympathy.

Four years ago, my mother passed away from a rare kind of cancer.  This occurred within six months of being diagnosed. She was in great health so her diagnosis came as  a huge shock.

After she passed away, my family began to receive all kinds of phone calls and cards.  It was interesting to observe how people reacted.  The majority of people acted as if my mom’s passing were this very rare event and that my family had a stroke of bad luck.  As if death only occurs to a select few.

It was amusing to see how so many people seemed unaware that they too would eventually pass from this earth.  My mother’s turn just came far earlier than what is normally expected.

Death is not a subject that many people like to talk about, so to see how people wanted to avoid a similar fate was an eye-opener.  However, the even more fascinating thing was that all the sympathy we were receiving was not very positive.

I have always believed that sympathy is a negative emotion and my theory was confirmed to me as a result of seeing how people treated us after my mom passed away.

Sympathy, although the intention is a noble one, is a form of pity.  When you sympathize with another, you effectively acknowledge and feel their pain and view their situation with negative judgment.

When a person is hurting, they do not need pity and the last thing they should be told is that their situation is one that could be viewed negatively.  If anything, sympathy is not healing.  Sympathy is dwelling on a negative emotion, thereby intensifying it which just makes the person stuck with a feeling of pain.

The reason behind the sympathetic wishes may come from a good intention but when you pity someone, you are not really helping them.  The majority of cards we received really did not do anything.  It just made us feel worse for having lost my mother to a bad disease while she was still young.

Of all the cards we received, I ended up keeping only two and they were ones that exuded compassion.  There was no flowery language which made you want to roll your eyes.  The tone was honest and real.  They acknowledged the pain of losing a mother at a young age but also addressed how to deal with it by seeing the blessings, so that we could move forward.  It was those two cards that made me see that compassion will always triumph over sympathy.

Sympathy and compassion may sound alike but they are not.  From a Buddhist perspective, compassion is defined as wanting others to be free from suffering.  While sympathy acknowledges pity, compassion desires to be of service and help.  So the effect of compassion is far more positive.

When someone is in a tough situation, the best way to help them is to stop their suffering and not add to it.  By being compassionate to their pain, you are better equipped to help deal with and eventually overcome the pain.

There is a saying: “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life”.  This saying is a perfect example of the difference between sympathy and compassion.  Feeding someone for one day will only help one time.  It will not give that person the opportunity to be self-sufficient.  However, teaching him how to fish will change his life and end his suffering.  A perfect example of compassion in action.

The world does not need more people sitting on the sidelines and feeling pity for the suffering that surrounds them on a daily basis.  Sympathy will not save the planet or bring peace or understanding or even raise the Dow Jones Index.  As the Dalai Lama said; “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive”.

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