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I’m from the Philadelphia area, and this past weekend was the long-awaited Pope’s visit. During and afterward I saw lots of articles, video, and commentary on compassion being at the center of Pope Francis’ messages. And this seems to be a big part of his appeal- among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This post is not about the Pope or his visit, however, but about compassion in general. Compassion is the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help (Wikipedia). It’s something our world could use more of, and in my experience as a psychologist, I have found that compassion has a number of benefits, not just for others but for us as well.
I had another experience last weekend that inspired this post. I’m a hockey parent, as I have been for a number of years, and I spent that same weekend in suburban Boston where my oldest son was playing in a tournament. Since he has to be at the rinks 90 minutes early, I spend a lot of time at coffee shops, getting work done or just killing time.
So I was in Starbucks on Saturday evening, working on my computer. As I sat there, I noticed a woman wheeling a large suitcase in the door. She must have been in her 60’s, with long hair tucked under a hat. The woman was somewhat frumpily dressed, yet it wasn’t immediately apparent if she was homeless or perhaps waiting for a ride to the airport (which we were close to). I was at Starbucks in what I believe to be a stereotypical New England suburb, which was very clean, filled with nice homes, upscale shops, and well-dressed people. It wasn’t at all where I would expect to see a homeless person. As she’s standing there, adjusting her suitcase and the umbrella she had perched on top, suddenly the woman yelled, “Get your fu**ing hands off of it!” And then (as if responding to an inquiry of, “What?”) she yelled, “The suitcase!”
I looked around the room and the staff seemed to pay the woman no mind, making me believe she must be a frequent visitor there. But of course, a number of other patrons stared, snickered, or just watched in awe. I couldn’t help but notice this, and I tried not to stare myself, as if that might help mitigate the reactions of others. As a psychologist, it became clear to me that this woman was responding to some kind of internal stimuli- a voice and/or a vision of some other being that only she could see or hear- and she was afraid or perhaps tormented by it. The woman was also likely homeless, protecting what may have been her only wordly belongings. I saw her there twice more on Sunday, sitting on a bench outside or inside getting a cup of coffee. By then there was no question that this woman was probably homeless as well as mentally ill.
Of course, I haven’t always been a psychologist or had education in psychology, so there were times in my life that I didn’t understand mental illness or poverty. And I admit that in my younger years I would have laughed at a situation like this and then shrugged it off. That’s a pretty typical reaction when you see something unusual or unexpected, especially something you don’t understand well.
But now I’m in a position to be more compassionate, since I understand the issues this woman is likely dealing with and have met many people like her. She probably has difficulty getting anyone to help her, much less finding support or access to necessary resources or treatment. And personally, I think experiencing psychosis (hallucinations and/or delusions) would be one of the most scary things a person could ever go through. It’s very sad, and rather than laugh at these people or make fun of them, it would be a good thing if people had more understanding and more compassion. It’s difficult for people to put themselves in others’ shoes (having this ability is what it means to have empathy), and this is especially true when it comes to those that we see as being so different from ourselves.
So how might one be more compassionate? How is this something we could just do? A good start is to remember to try not to pass judgment on others, because you really never know them or what they’re going through. It’s natural for us to judge- good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and so on. We probably do this hundreds of times per day, without even noticing. Making judgments, of course, is useful in many cases, and even helps us to survive. But especially here in America, we have become too quick to judge others, their motives, and even their value- even spreading our opinions widely via the Internet.
Again, I’m in a unique position to understand compassion and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I work as a therapist and day after day people divulge their pain, losses, embarrassment, and other thoughts and feelings to me that they may not tell others. It’s ironic, because as a psychologist, people assume that I work with “crazy” people, but the reality is that most clients are just regular-looking (and quite high functioning) people. Many have good jobs, or get good grades in school, are great athletes, have nice families, and so on. People see me for all different reasons, but the average person on the street who saw someone go in or out of my door would never guess anything was wrong. People who look normal, typical, or perfect on the outside may actually feel very different on the inside. We don’t know that, though, unless we get to know them.
On the flip side, we make all kinds of judgements about those who we deem to be “crazy”, “poor”, “stupid”, “gay”, “fat” and so on and so forth. We do this anytime someone looks or acts different from us or from what we see as normal. Not only are we labeling people, but we’re assigning a pretty negative connotation most of the time. And making snap judgments like that, not even knowing the person and having virtually no evidence to back up what we’re thinking or saying, who are we to say who that person is or is not- or what they’re like? Who gave us the right to make these determinations? The people we’re judging are usually very different from what we assume, and that’s something for us to keep in mind. And just because something is different from us, what makes us less? This reminds me of the HBO movie about Temple Grandin, a famous woman with autism. Growing up, her mother kept telling her, “You’re different, not less than”. I love that line. One thing I encourage clients to do is to think of someone they initially judged negatively, but who ended up becoming a friend or even someone we were in a relationship with. We can probably all think of someone like this. We thought they were annoying, not cool, arrogant, stuck up, etc., but then we got to know them and realized they were quite different.
Another thing I have found helpful is to try to view things in a neutral, nonjudgmental way. Try to just observe what’s going on, rather than being quick to judge. I’m not formally trained in mindfulness, but this is a key aspect of it. We can’t reliably make meaning of something we have witnessed for probably less than a minute. Try to just observe, and not only see what fits with our initial impression. This is also a key part of the scientific method. If someone judged you and your whole life based on a 30 second segment (possibly when you are at your worst), what would they say? That doesn’t seem fair, does it? Or take the person or family who seems absolutely perfect. Get to know them and I guarantee you will find imperfections- unhappiness, anxiety, addiction, cruelty, ignorance, and so forth. There is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect family. No such thing. So it takes practice, but judgement in either direction isn’t generally good.
You might also think of a phrase or two that keeps what you’re noticing in perspective. This can be helpful when you see or hear something that you don’t like- someone voicing an opinion, doing the opposite of what you would do, or showing what you see as ignorance. I’m not talking about situations where it might be appropriate to intervene- like when you see someone bullying or harassing another person, but I am talking about when we just don’t agree with something. This might be someone sharing thoughts on politics, religion, money, and things like that. One phrase I have personally found helpful, and I can’t remember where I heard it, so I’m not sure who to attribute it to, is: “We all want the same things, for pretty much the same reasons”. Simple, yes, but true. We all want to be happy, to have fun, to have the world be the kind of place we think it should be, and to feel some control over that world. The difference is how we go about it. What makes you happy or what you think is right might differ from what I think, and most times that’s ok. We don’t need to lash out against that person, to confront them with our own opinion, to try to change their mind, or talk about them behind their back. It just doesn’t work.
What I’m saying here is that being more compassionate not only helps others, but it helps us. I think most people view compassion as something we do for other people, but don’t underestimate the good it can do for you. When you can view others with compassion, you feel less angry, less hateful, less annoyed…which makes way for more understanding, a greater focus on ourselves and what we have going on, and ultimately, more happiness and a greater sense of well-being. If you want to be healthy and happy, don’t think you can do it by changing others. It starts with you- being happy with who you are and what you have to offer (we also need to feel compassion toward ourselves!), and thinking about what we can do in our own lives to make a difference. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.
If compassion is a struggle, if you find yourself distracted by others or what they’re doing, or if you want to find greater life satisfaction, happiness, or well-being, consider talking to a psychologist. For a referral, click here or here. Take care!
(c) 2015, Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D.