Q. When I encounter someone in pain—physical, emotional or otherwise, I tend to have strong reactions. I think of how unfair it is for someone to suffer or I get into pitying them. I feel sorry and start to feel sad. I hear people talking about sympathy and compassion and sometimes I can’t quite tell the difference between these different responses. I feel stuck in pity and don’t know how to make changes. How do I stay open to other’s suffering and find a way to be strong and helpful?
A. This does sound like a difficult dilemma for you and I appreciate the entire topic that you are raising in your question. Since suffering is an integral part of life, exploring how we can respond to pain is an essential inquiry and learning in life. Often we can’t stop pain and suffering, so understanding it more deeply becomes highly valuable.
Pity is condescending, it is a looking down on the other person and separates us from another in a kind of superior way. Additionally, we do not understand another in this way, rather we imagine negative scenarios and often don’t do much to help them. Unless you pity yourself, you’re usually not drawn to a person who pities you.
Sympathy is an identification with another’s experience. It is a kind of joining with the other person. Their pain becomes ours. We tend to lose ourselves in their plight and issues. In losing our own self in their distress, sadness or grievance, we sink in their suffering and lose our own objectivity, strength and resourcefulness.
Compassion requires a deeper level of understanding and engagement. It’s a response from strength and wishing for the alleviation of another’s suffering without an agenda or even judging their condition. Without losing ourselves, we become intimate with the problem or person in need. We hold the suffering with them and begin to realize from a differentiated perspective, that their pain and ours are deeply connected. This fosters opening of the heart through feeling like we are all jewels in Indra’s net. In this Indo-Chinese view, the universe is a spacious net, with jewels at each juncture, reflecting all the other jewels in the net. Each jewel exists in relationship with another. This allows us to see a person as a whole being, regardless of their situation. It also allows us to be strong, stand up for injustice and speak out truth without blame or violence. Lastly, we realize that all of life’s experiences offer value and if contemplated deeply, suffering especially cultivates compassion.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist of Indian descent in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com