Compassion is a crucial, yet often overlooked concept. Sometimes we get so caught up in differentiating ourselves from others and emphasizing our individuality, that we forget how truly similar we are to each other. Of course, we are all unique and different human beings, which is a beautiful thing. While we all have our own special skills and various preferences, there are certain common humanistic values that tie us together.
Think of a time when someone was compassionate towards you. How did that make you feel?
Now think of a time when you really could have used some extra understanding and support, but didn’t get it. How did that make you feel?
What if you were treated with compassion in that moment or situation? How might things have unfolded differently? We may never know the answer to that, but we do know how it feels to be treated with and without compassion.
These same questions can be applied to how we’ve treated ourselves and others in past experiences. There is always room for improvement and growth in this area. Compassion, both the presence and the absence of it, can serve as an incredible teacher.
Recently, I was on an airplane that was delayed on the runway for quite a while due to weather. In trying times like these, I think it’s safe to say that many people experience the discomfort of the unknown. We want to know—What exactly is causing the delay? When are we taking off? Are we going to be ok?
One woman started crying, having difficulty breathing, and was yelling to be let off the plane. Her panic escalated to the point of her collapsing in the aisle of the plane, doubled over, sobbing, and clearly suffering tremendously. My heart ached for her and it was difficult to hear and see this happening from many seats away without being able to get up and help.
I witnessed a variety of different reactions to this situation. Some people were afraid, others were exacerbated, and a few were empathetic. Most of the comments I heard were “get her off the plane” and “what’s wrong with her!?” In my mind, I was thinking, “That poor woman. We need to help her. Not only does she need compassion, she deserves it.”
Then my aching heart was warmed by the power of compassion. The passenger in the seat next to the woman leaned over and started rubbing her back. Then the flight attendant came over to her, knelt down in the narrow walkway and spoke to her in a soft and kind voice. He gently encouraged her to breathe and he stayed right there by her side. His voice was not punitive, judgmental, harsh, or patronizing. Instead, his tone conveyed that he was there for her. Another flight attendant brought the woman water and adopted the same caring attitude.
Within a matter of minutes, a situation that had been steadily escalating for quite some time and eventually erupted into a full-blown crisis, was resolved with simple, yet poignant human decency and compassion.
The woman didn’t need people to yell at her, to tell her she’s crazy, or to demand that she simply calm down. She needed reassurance that she was not alone. She needed to know that she was safe.
She needed compassion.
Compassion is not always the easy path to a solution. Sometimes it’s easier to create a separation between the self and a perceived other. The truth of the matter, though, is that we are all the same. When we choose to put up a wall and ignore our inherent oneness, we create a divide that lends itself to misunderstanding and conflict. When we choose love over fear, we close that widening gap that prevents us from harmony within ourselves and among others.
I thought to myself, how would I want to be treated if I were that woman? How would I want that woman to be treated if she were a family member or friend?
We all want many of the same basic emotional needs fulfilled. As human beings, we inherently want safety, love, and acceptance. And we want compassion. The best way to receive compassion is to give it. This idea of sameness or oneness is often referred to as “common humanity”. In the book, The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama describes the concept of common humanity as one that promotes a sense of unity and goodwill both within ourselves and in society.
So next time you witness the actions or behavior of someone who is clearly (or even not so clearly) struggling, I encourage you to notice your internal reaction. Be honest with yourself, as we all have our own biases. Be a witness to your own experience. Sit with it for a moment, however uncomfortable it may be. Then make the conscious decision of choosing compassion. Know that by doing this, you are making the world a better place.