Ask yourself what’s missinig in contemporary news and discourse. What underlies divisiveness and hate speech. What makes some encounters (with a police officer, or a doctor, or someone you expect to care) so completely demoralizing. And what causes hopelessness and pain and substance use and. . .
My answer: compassion is missing. When a person has physical pain with certain movements, we might find that they are missing range of motion and work to correct that with manipulation and training. When someone has diabetes, we may find that they are missing insulin, and we can replace it with injections. What can we do when someone is missing compassion? This isn’t a medical question, it’s a spiritual and psychological and human one. And I don’t have the answer.
Compassion isn’t a complex idea, at its root. Merriam-Webster’s definition is ”sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. Etymologically, the root “Pati”— to suffer— is also the root of the word “patient”. Combined with com-, which means “with”— to suffer, or bear suffering, with, we get to the definition pretty easily. The linguistic bridge to the patient, though, is especially interesting to me as someone who works in healthcare.
In literature about nursing (and other helping professions), there’s a concept called “compassion fatigue”. It’s intuitive, isn’t it? You care deeply, you give of yourself, you feel and work and still the suffering goes on. And at some point, you start to hurt so much yourself that you lose the capacity to be an effective helper. You develop defenses to protect yourself, and you can’t connect with others anymore. Healthcare systems that demand “productivity” from workers and don’t account for human needs very well contribute to this. It happens in other contexts, too: how many mass shootings can you read about, or how many photos of ICE camps can you see, before you start to turn off the part of your brain that processes that stuff?
I told you before that I don’t have the answer, and I don’t. But I have some ideas for how to help, a little.
- Cultivate human connections in big and small ways. Say hi to the coffee shop cashier and tell her you like her shirt. Invite your coworkers over for dinner.
- Find a spiritual practice. Compassion is a major concept in Buddhism, but we also see it in religious traditions globally, including Christianity. Some people will find joining a religious community is a good way to do this, but you could also pursue this alone. There’s lots to read. There are books and online communities and apps and classes. There’s journaling and thinking and meditating and finding out about traditions you didn’t grow up with.
- Find ways to keep beauty in your life. Maybe you go to art museums or theater performances. Maybe you read poetry. Maybe you’re really into makeup. Whatever it is, beauty is healing.
- Expose yourself to new things. Go somewhere you don’t usually go, read an author outside of your usual cannon, eat a cuisine you’re unfamiliar with. Shake up your status quo and practice seeing with fresh eyes.
- Animals. Have one in your life. Or make meaningful eye contact with one on the street. Or pet one who seems into it. Appreciate the uncomplicated connection.
- Set boundaries, and honor them. Whether this means you only read the news once a day in the morning, or you don’t take work calls during dinner, or you don’t take extra shifts, or you keep parts of your personal life away from your work environment— whatever you need to do, figure it out and keep it sacred.
- Take time to replenish yourself and don’t let others make you feel guilty for it. Use your vacation time (yes, I know in some workplaces it’s not really ok. do it anyway, because you need to value yourself more than these soft norms that might get you further ahead in an organization that doesn’t value your humanity). Plan things in your off time that replenish and refresh you. Sure, it might be spa time, but maybe it’s canoeing, or going to the movies, or running an ultramarathon.
- Care for yourself on the regs— meaning, eat, sleep, exercise, hydrate, and make time for health maintenance and medical care when you need it.
If you are consistently practicing this kind of self work, your ability to feel, and practice, compassion will likely be stronger, especially over time. If we all do this for ourselves and aid one another to do it, we might see tiny cultural shifts in our communities. That’s a start.