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Thursday, October 7, 2010

empathy vs. compassion

From: Art by Wicks

Tea for the post: pomegranate green tea from a cafe in the Little Italy of Boston :-P What **tea** would you like to be served?

The following article/video about how Compassion Meditation can be helpful for caregivers to combat "empathy fatigue" was shared by a Facebook friend of mine today. It also discusses the difference between empathy and compassion. I think the ideas discussed are not only important for those who serve suffering people (such as doctors, nurses, social workers etc.) but also for the rest of us who are immersed in this ocean of the negativity found in our world. This negativity I speak of is our witnessing (whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually) of other's suffering, feeling it and thus suffering with them, and yet feeling helpless as observers with little power to make a profound difference for them. Such "empathy fatigue" may even lead to apathy--better to not deal with such suffering and live my life...right?

I think that such a mentality however only adds to the problems, especially as apathy involves ignoring the issues at hand, and thus not even addressing them, and can potentially lead one to do the cruelest things or at least to say or do things without considering other's pain (consider "rape jokes" for example, which are so pervasive in many societies unfortunately. But then again, one can alternatively argue that rape jokes in themselves can cause apathy, even if the "joker" may not actually perpetuate the criminal act itself). 
Such a mentality can even harm us ourselves in subtle ways especially by denying a great part of ourselves as social animals and only makes us feel more nihilistic. We deny ourselves the capacity to expand our consciousness beyond our ego (as one of my professors once joked with us: "So you better get your head outta your ass, 'cause there's a WHOLE WORLD out there beyond yourself!!" LOL) and to expand our potentials...(you'll see what I mean towards the end of this post lol; I'm just blabbering right now :-P).

This is why I believe the topic is important for each one of us to reflect upon, whether you deal with or have witnessed people who've undergone trauma, or have undergone trauma yourself, or simply see/hear of others undergoing suffering.

So, below are my thoughts regarding this article and the video that accopmanies it. Would like to note that a lot of my thoughts are partly based on my experiences as a volunteer in a rape crisis center hotline, some of which have touched me at a deep level or have left me with so much negativity that I couldn't sleep a night or two. Thinking about these thoughts and writing them down in a journal (and again writing them down here in this post) make a great difference for me and ground me in my purpose for volunteering in the first place. (Would recommend reading and watching the video before reading the next paragraphs below):

I guess it could be fair to say that mere empathy is just plain "mirroring" and inaction whereas compassion is mirroring but also seeing beyond the reflection itself--that is, seeing the person/animal as beyond the label of "victim" or "survivor" but as what they are which is "person/animal" with past, present, & future all at once and with thoughts, emotions, spirits, etc. all at once--as in seeing them as Whole beings, because this label of "victim" or "survivor' is only a Part, and the Whole is greater than the sum of its Parts. A table, for example, isn't defined by its legs, surface, wood, etc. but as a table; a Whole. In the same way, human being is more than just his body, possessions, past, present, future, thoughts, emotions, labels, etc. he is "human"; a Whole. I try my best to remind myself of this when I start having negative thoughts or feelings as I speak to the clients in the hotline. I try to listen to them as Whole individuals rather than with the labels of "victim" or "survivor", but I can't say I'm always successful in that and this article and video indeed add more for me to reflect upon.

I personally think that another important thing to be aware of to prevent empathy fatigue is to keep the ego in check; are my objectives to be THE "super-hero" and to get my points across to the client or is it to actually help them? Why do I let my ego determine that the client's future will always be suffering--what do I know especially in a world filled with possibilities and potential, and when each human is filled with potential that they can transcend from being plain reactionary, and thus submitting, to their environments, genes, negativity, etc.? Another thing that was helpful for me was to remind myself that I'm not alone in the work and I'm only a Part of a Whole Team.

We are so deeply connected, our very existence and our very wholeness cannot be defined in isolation from one another, whether it be with fellow human beings or even our very environment--though we are whole individuals, we are only part of a greater whole. By genuinely helping others or at least connecting with them can humble us--thus, we are NOT the ones helping them, rather THEY are helping us, to think otherwise, in my view, is to think that they are indebted to you whether consciously or unconsciously. 

Genuinely helping others helps us to see the people we "help" in their whole humanity beyond the labels of "victim" or "survivor" or a "nameless, faceless statistic", and thus we break our delusion that we are somehow on a higher plane for having "privileges" when in reality we have NOTHING. Our privileges are only borrowed and, unfortunately, we treat them as idols we attach to and as masks we define ourselves with until death takes them away from us whether we like it or not. To me, death itself is a silent testimony that there is far more meaning to our lives than mere accumulation of wealth and privileges. Let us therefore "fly" for the sake of "flying" rather than "flying" for the sake of mere "survival".

(here's the link again in case you missed it twice above...

From your Tea Mate,
Reema B. :-)


  1. I like the subjects you write about! very well done :)

  2. Hi Matthias! Welcome to the **Tea House** and thank you so much for becoming into a **Tea Mate**! What **tea** can I serve you as a token of my gratitude? :-) You seem to have an interesting blog yourself, I will be taking a more careful look it soon and will try to stop by there more often ;-) I'm quite a busy person though lol!

    Anyhow, very nice to meet you!

  3. ...interesting post. You put a lot into it.

  4. Thanks Kelly! Didn't log into blogger in a bit and so I didn't get to see your awesome bird pictures in ages!! How've you been by the way?