What Compassion Is

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The other day I was out walking my son in his stroller when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I’d seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. I turned down her request and continued walking, to my chagrin, as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I’d kicked it away without any thought.

I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. As I learned to set boundaries more comfortably, my anger would give way to inconsistency: I’d sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.

Given that at least one study has suggested roughly 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, if somewhat less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I’m asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I’m capable.


Compassion is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires both. Empathy involves responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. (For example, even more than empathy and sympathy, what we want from our doctors is compassion.) The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means:

    1. Giving people what they want. Which is what I used to think—but only because I would routinely find myself practically incapacitated by the thought of disappointing anyone. And though giving people what they want does make them happy, it does so only transiently and usually leaves them unimproved, denying them the motivation to take on growth producing challenges. Also, people quite often want what isn’t good for them (think of the child who wants to watch television instead of doing homework, the gambler who wants to bet his life savings, the alcoholic who wants to drink). If our aim is to help others become happy we must apply our own judgment to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf. Compassion without wisdom is dangerous.
    2. Sacrificing ourselves. Though the size of our compassion is often measured by what we’re willing to sacrifice, we shouldn’t therefore conclude that an act requires sacrifice to qualify as a compassionate one. Acting compassionately may often be inconvenient, but if you find yourself actually sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way you’ve allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less. In fact, sometimes you may care about another person’s happiness but find that other person not only beyond your help but a serious risk to your own happiness. In such cases, the person toward whom you must turn your compassionate gaze is yourself. Detaching with love means removing yourself from another person’s zone of destruction without ceasing to care about them in your heart. It would be far less compassionate to allow two lives to be ruined when one (yours) could be saved.
    3. Being constantly gentle. Many believe being compassionate requires you to adopt a passive, non-violent demeanor and express only loving kindness at all times. Though compassion certainly can be all those things, to be effective, compassion must sometimes be harsh, angry, and forceful. You can’t judge the quality or intent of an action only by the envelope in which it’s mailed. With the intent to increase another person’s happiness as your constant thought, you may sometimes find yourself taking action that paradoxically seems on the surface to lack the very compassion that drives it.
    4. Getting a reward. True compassion expects no reward or recognition. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting either, but when they become the predominant motivation for acting compassionately, you risk shifting your focus from increasing the happiness of others to the gratification of your own ego, which then risks behavior that harms instead of helps.
    5. Liking everyone. There’s no requirement that you like anyone in order to be a compassionate person. You can, in fact, actively dislike someone towards whom you feel great compassion. Being compassionate may mean thinking benevolently about a person despite their flaws, but it doesn’t mean pretending those flaws don’t exist. You don’t have to pretend that people don’t annoy you, nor do you have to open yourself up to establishing personal relationships with people you try to help.


If compassion is none of those things, though, then what is it? I would argue the following:

    1. Unconditional acceptance. Compassion focuses itself only on the potential all people have for good, ignoring everything else. Which isn’t to say compassion deludes itself into thinking all people are good. Just that the capacity to become good can never be destroyed by a thousand evil acts and must therefore always be sought. Which requires—
    2. Endurance. The people for whom you care may refuse to stop suffering. They may rail against you for your efforts and treat you even more shabbily than others who don’t care about them at all. Having true compassion for them is refusing to be defeated by such transient concerns. Even if, as discussed above, you eventually must detach with love, never stop loving them, even when they try to destroy themselves or others.
    3. Action. Another person’s happiness may feel important to you, but if you have the opportunity to take compassionate action yet don’t, your feeling was only ever theoretical.


In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is the term used for a person who seeks to become happy by supporting the happiness of others. To live as a bodhisattva is one of the goals to which I continuously aspire. The reason is simple: the feeling of genuine compassion for another person appears to be one of the most joyful experiences available to human beings. Further, only in the life state of the bodhisattva does it become clear how making the happiness of others the ultimate goal of one’s life entails no personal sacrifice at all. Finally, I don’t believe that indestructible happiness is possible to attain in isolation. How can anyone be truly happy while everyone—or anyone—else around them continues to suffer?

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  • I agree sacrifice isn’t always necessary but I think that sacrificing your own happiness to help a complete stranger is a true illustration of what compassion really is.

    People like Mother Teresa are actually more concerned about helping others than themselves, and they sacrifice their own happiness so that they can do this. It is this that makes them great.

  • This is one of the most honest, thoughtful & practical essays on compassion I’ve read.

    A lot to digest & to think about here—and the two points that resonate with me are:

    1. Compassion is not giving people what they want or sacrificing yourself.

    2. Compassion is unconditional acceptance, taking action, often when you’d rather not, and having the courage to do what needs to be done.

    And it’s not just for the stranger—it’s for family members & co-workers.

    Often feeling compassionate doesn’t come easily—especially when I start to feel judgmental—but my proudest (& highest) moments have involved showing compassion through action by accepting someone else exactly where they were—and giving what was needed at the time.

    Your post reminded of the almost counter-intuitive scientific evidence that meditation has been shown to “strengthen the compassion muscle.”

    A while back I wrote of the French-born Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard who said:

    “It’s wonderful to live longer, healthier, to have access to information, education, to travel, to have freedom. But it’s not enough. Those are only auxiliary conditions…It makes (much more) sense to train to be a better person and to get rid of self-importance—then you’re able to be genuinely helpful to everyone with no strings attached.”

    If you care to read more about Ricard & the meditation/compassion connection, link to:

    “How Does Happiness Look on an MRI? Can You Change Anger, Hatred and Jealousy into Compassion, Joy and Kindness?”


  • I’ve thought long about this problem. Particularly since I live in a third-world country where you will also see kids asking for money or food, which is much more difficult to brush away. I also believe giving money is not the right answer, so I give my money instead to organized charities that help children or homeless people in a way I find meaningful.

    Maria: An especially difficult problem in third-world countries, I agree. I like your solution.


  • Thank you for your post. I’ve tried to define compassion for myself. For me it is also about honoring people for their choices. What we may consider to be poor choices are still their choices. As a spiritual coach, I listen a lot and I work hard at keeping my own opinions and judgments aside. Compassion is about unconditional love and the unconditional part is the part that is the most difficult!


    Sherry: It surely is! I try to focus on the capacity all people have for good, whether they’re currently fulfilling that capacity or not. But it sure is hard when they’re not…


  • What constitutes happiness to one who is homeless and begging for money? A full stomach? Warm clothes? The next fix or drink of alcohol? Maintaining their perceived freedom? Do we really know? I have taken to carrying small “snack packs” of some kind when I travel in cities as I am also uncomfortable refusing money. With a food offering I am not contributing to a drug habit that may lead to death and I offer no judgment, only the hope that something to eat that day may ease their journey.

    JED: It’s such a difficult problem to know how to approach. I like your idea a lot. I once brought a homeless man who asked me for money into a grocery store to buy him food, but he then refused to accept it. It seems to me the first step to helping a homeless person become truly happy would be to help them solve the problem that led them to homelessness in the first place (a monumental, if not impossible, task for a stranger to accomplish). Then, of course, that formerly homeless person would have to struggle to stay happy like the rest of us…


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  • I think that compassion is sometimes shown by giving people what they want and sometimes not. Giving money to the homeless probably doesn’t help them much, and in some places gets you labeled as a weak and easy mark. I knew this teenage boy who used to go and panhandle—he had a perfectly good home—he just wanted some cash.

    Sometimes compassion is shown through indirect acts, as Maria C who gives to charity; or through political action that creates better social policies.

    I think you shouldn’t feel bad for not offering Buddhism to homeless people—they would not be in any frame of mind to receive it—and of course, you are providing an insight into Buddhism right here right now through your blog. I always feel that any philosophy cannot be meaningful only as an abstraction—it must connect to real life.

    Sometimes though, people need what they are asking for and they know what they need.

    For example, I remember an article about an older homeless woman who turned down whole wheat bread (said she could only have white) and the writer was very disdainful of her—well, I have a sensitive stomach myself so I avoid whole grains—at best, they make me hungrier—at worse I get a lot of pain (especially on an empty stomach). I imagine that this woman, from living rough on the street probably has a litany of health problems including a sensitive stomach. Many times people want a job, or reasonable rent, or reliable babysitters—but they don’t get offered that.

    I have been homeless and I have been very poor, but I never asked people for money. Sometimes people in my town would give me gifts of grocery store coupons—and they were VERY much appreciated!!! Charities and institutions/governments don’t always help people that much. I have personally seen the favoritism and judgmental nature of foodbanks.

    We were living in our van last summer looking for work/a cheap places to live. I found this great job perfect for my skills/credentials—I happened to see who got that job—an affluent, pretty married woman who (I happened to see her resume) didn’t have 1/4 of my academic/work experience qualifications. Giving people a chance can help.

    Another way to help people would be to become a landlord of a lower income apartment and keep it in decent repair—ie. plumbing that works, walls that aren’t literally falling in, etc.—but not raise the rents much.

    I think that anyone who becomes a doctor has already performed an enormous service to society—and especially a doctor who tries to do right by his patients, not to mention that being a doctor is a major demand on time/energy, so I don’t think you need to worry about your personal role in solving the world’s problems.

    Wendy: Thanks for making such a thoughtful comment. I would only add that when the original Buddha, Shakyamuni, attained enlightenment, the action he took was to spend his life traveling across India trying to impart to others the wisdom he’d gained, and that sharing Buddhism with others has always been an integral part of practicing it. Other Buddhists I know have in fact introduced homeless people to Nichiren Buddhism with great success. As you imply in your comment, however, it always takes wise judgment to know when to proceed and when not to. I’ve always preferred to share the practice by being such an outstanding example of a human being that others provide me the opportunity to bring Nichiren Buddhism up when they’re compelled to ask how I’ve become so compassionate, wise, and happy ;). I’m always careful to refrain from judging how another will take my introducing the practice to them, however: you never know when someone will be intrigued and grab hold and want to make it their own or become offended that you’re trying to convert them. I far prefer attraction over promotion. But even that takes courage.

    And as for my worrying about my personal role in solving the world’s problems, I appreciate your sentiment, but my thinking is that as I expand my capabilities in general I should expand my vision of the contribution I can make. Daisaku Ikeda, the current president of the SGI, has written as his guiding principle: “A great revolution of character in just a single person will help achieve a change in destiny of a nation and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of all humankind.”


  • Another thoughtful, insightful post, Alex. I, too, am very uncomfortable with the idea of proselytizing Buddhism. But I do try to live compassionately. When approached by a homeless person or anyone else in need, I freely offer compassion by being present with them to the best of my ability. Often this means attentively listening with an open heart to their narrative, be it the narrative of their present circumstance or their life.

    Will my action change another’s life circumstance? Probably not. However, I will never forget the embrace of a homeless man with whom I shared 20-30 minutes of conversation, the embrace of a man clinging to a life raft, tears streaming down his weathered cheeks as he thanked me for caring, for acknowledging his humanity and making a connection when others blindly walked by. And my tears flowed, too, that day, flowing in humility and joy that through our brief connection, we were both elevation and happier in that moment. It doesn’t get much better than that for me.

    Maya: Wow. Thanks for reminding me that even the simple act of showing another that you do care can spark the beginnings of happiness in someone else’s life. Of course, it didn’t solve the problem of his homelessness, but who knows what change your showing up for him for that 20-30 minutes may have wrought in him. Even if it just made him feel like a full-fledged human being for that half hour or just gave him hope…


  • What a carefully written piece. I immediately thought of my late mother, who started volunteering when she retired at sixty-eight. She only volunteered at places that had good training programs; she said it was her college education. The Red Cross traveling blood bank, Roswell Park Cancer Research Hospital, Millard Fillmore Hospital, Rosa Copland Old Age Home, the Samaritans (until she was replaced by a grad student): thirty five hours a week when she started. She was still doing twenty hours when she had a stroke at eighty-eight. And that was in Buffalo, using public transportation in the dead of winter. When I told her she’d be entering assisted living, she asked me two questions: “Can I afford it? How will I work?” She could afford it, and since she was already volunteering at the assisted living facility (originally the Old Age Home) she could continue there. And she did until she was ninety. She was the most compassionate person I’ve ever met; I found out about “random acts of kindness” she’d done all her life. But she never thought about it; it was simply the way she was. You didn’t mention “humility.” She was distressed about her sister’s eulogy and told me that she didn’t want a eulogy, that the work she did was for herself (she told me if I didn’t follow her wishes she’d come back and haunt me). She did agree to an obituary (I got ten letters from people I never heard of telling me things she’d done for them). Her religion didn’t enter into it; it would never have occurred to her to mention it to anyone she helped. I never met her father, but I heard stories about his good deeds also. She had a very analytical mind and great intellect; I wish she could have read your piece because she never thought about her “compassion”; it was simply her being. She was not a saint; she was feisty, funny and played a mean game of poker.

    Andrea: What a great picture you painted. I wish I could have met your mother myself.


  • She went to her doctors frequently and I was concerned and a little puzzled because she was so healthy. Other than well controlled hypertension she was in excellent health. I was home one week and she told me she was seeing her cardiologist. When she came home I asked her what he said. “He’s really upset because his son has been living with a woman for years and he wants him to get married.” After her visit with her internist, I again inquired. “Poor Dr. P., he’s going through a terrible divorce.” She met Dr. P when she volunteered for the Red Cross. He was moonlighting while in medical school and ate all the cookies there. She would bring him sandwiches. After she came home from the gastroenterolgist (she had diverticulitis) I asked her if she was on meds. “No, I’m fine, but Dr. G has a disabled child and that’s why he’s staying in an unhappy marriage.” I stopped worrying about her and wondered if she should have been the one doing the billing. If she were your patient you would have enjoyed her.

  • Thank you, Alex, I am grateful to have found this blog. Through it you have created a warm, gentle space for spirit to flow.

    If permissible, I would like to add to my earlier post.

    Marginalized people have difficulty trusting (with good reason!) So many people learn that trust leads to betrayal and pain. In exchanges with people living on the sidelines—through whatever cause—I am the recipient of a vast, beautiful, humbling gift, the gift of a trust-challenged stranger blessing me by sharing of him/herself, whether it be through a smile and eye contact passing on the street, or a 15 or 60 minute conversation. Me, a total stranger. I truly am blessed!


  • “Because every time I turn down a homeless person’s request for money what I think to myself (other than somewhere out there must be someone worried about them) isn’t that I should have given them what they wanted, but rather that a Buddha would have given them something they need.”

    Until you have compassion for yourself the credibility of your compassion for others must remain in doubt.

  • Really gripping writing style.

    Came here off Steve Pavlina forums.

    I liked that you outlined what compassion isn’t; specifically giving people what they want. Such a subtle sly one that is.

    To me, compassion is love for another in the sense of allowing them to be who they are. Unconditionally. Non-judgment etc, just pure allowing what is to be.


    Alex: Thanks for the compliment. The views of anyone named Alex need to be taken seriously. 😉


  • Giving money to homeless people? At times I sit down with someone on the sidewalk downtown and if he/she is interested in talking we talk. If not, we just share a bit of company for a while—me in my dress shirt and slacks, he dressed not quite that formally. Sometimes I bring along a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup but that is only when the spirit moves me—not a habit.

    Giving money? Not unless we talk (and yes, mentally challenged people can talk, although sometimes it takes a bit more patience to listen . . .) And I am simply honest: “If you use the money to buy alcohol or drugs I am not comfortable with giving you money for that because it can harm you. If you tell me that you will use it to buy food, I’ll gladly share what I have.”

    Some say that this is misplaced trust. My answer: there is no such thing as misplaced trust and if a person needs to break my trust that is his/her responsibility—not mine. But I find that, when given and spoken from the heart, my trust in people is seldom broken. Sometimes street people I have given some money to tell me later that they had indeed used it for drugs etc. Does that not mean that, by telling me that, there indeed is trust here?

    Last March I spent a month in a Mayan village high in the mountains of Guatemala. The poverty was heart breaking and there was alcoholism, lack of proper nutrition, virtually no health care and what not. Almost all there are Catholic and practiced their age-old Mayan beliefs as well. But below that surface people truly lived their spirituality and, despite a cruelly hard life, I have never met more truly happy people.

    I was part of our group of four people volunteering for a program aimed at helping children (mostly orphans) deal with the traumas of civil war experiences and the results of natural disasters such as mud slides covering entire villages after hurricane Mitch a few years ago.

    We spent time with story telling and art, mostly in the local schools, and of course we played soccer. Nothing big—no pay—no giving money. Sometimes I would just sit on a rock along the road, and people would stop and ask me why I—a Norte Americano—would sit there in the dust, and could they help me?

    My answer to you about this unusual kind of tourism is the same as my answer to street people: if you just simply sit with a person and open your heart, love and compassion happen automatically although it sometimes takes some time. In fact, “just sitting with a person” IS love and compassion. No big deal—just a “happy deal.”

    And, by the way, many people there asked me to help them gain the skills they need for a better life—not gifts of money unless there was a real emergency.


  • Sometimes I find myself too busy “thinking” about life: “I’ve often thought about. . .” or “I’ve tried to define . . .” or reading all those wonderful self-help books.

    Perhaps compassion becomes a bit simpler if we would just DO rather than THINK? Here is one true example of what I mean:

    A person I know was driving down the highway and saw a man pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. It was pouring rain. On impulse the driver stopped his car, got out, gave the old woman an umbrella, smiled at her, and got back into his car and drove on. THAT is compassion. Try it . . .

    Reluctant thinker: I couldn’t agree more. There’s a famous Buddhist parable along the same lines: two monks came across a deer lying by the side of the road with an arrow in its side. They started to debate at what moment life would leave the deer’s body. Then the Buddha came along and, ignoring the two monks, rushed to the deer and pulled the arrow out.


  • Having a drug addiction does not mean someone isn’t worthy of your compassion or loose change. And living in your alley is precisely why you’re giving her money in the first place. You have been blessed with success and affluence while many people around you suffer and starve. To dismiss them because they take drugs to cope with their situation is not compassion.

    Many people are addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. Yet, our society teaches us that those addicts are better than the addicts which take cheap drugs in allies to escape the reality of life.

    Rather than sitting in judgment of the homeless in your neighborhood, try accepting them for who they are. Whether someone spends your 25 cents on McDonald’s, drugs, or real food. Does it really matter? Is it not their right as a human being to make their own choices?

    If her drug habit really bothers you so much, there are plenty of ways you could help. A gift card for example. I don’t have money to give, but when I do, I share. Not very much, but a little.

    Greg: I think you misunderstood where I was coming from in my post. I was attempting to be honest about the difficulty I have in mustering up compassionate action in certain circumstances. If I came across as being dismissive of the homeless woman who approached me, that wasn’t my intent. I FEEL great compassion for her but am frustrated by my own inability to take what I consider to be compassionate ACTION toward her, which in my view makes my feeling compassion for her worthless to her and to me. But I remind myself that compassion must be developed and nurtured, which is essentially why I practice Buddhism. I truly don’t judge her addiction to drugs, and her habit only bothers me in that I believe she’d be happier without it and that those around her would be, too. And it does matter to me where someone spends my “25 cents” just as it matters to me where the government spends my tax dollars. If I’d contributed money, even inadvertently, to a terrorist organization, I would feel a sense of responsibility for that organization’s ability to terrorize. By giving a homeless drug addict the means to continue her addiction, which I believe due to my personal and professional experience leads directly away from happiness, I would then be contributing to her misery and not her happiness, and that is definitely not compassion in my book. As I pointed out in the post, compassion applied without wisdom can often create more misery than it resolves.


  • Very thought provoking, Alex, as always. I’m so glad I found your blog. I understand your wish to engage with people who need help, but you had your infant with you. Perhaps not getting involved was the best choice for safety’s sake, even if the homeless lady is someone you know, just a bit. I give fast food coupons to people who ask for assistance. At least I know they can’t be used for anything else.

    Judy: You raise an important point about safety I thought about but didn’t mention in the post. Fast food coupons are a nice idea. I think that what constitutes the most compassionate action a person could take will depend on what that person feels they have to offer. For me, it isn’t money, but something that would require more time and effort on my part to impart. I continue to struggle to challenge myself to more consistently impart it. This just represents the current boundary of my growth. Thanks for your comment and compliment on the blog.


  • Thank you for your thoughtful post. Interactions with homeless or requests for money happen to all of us and pose the question, how will we respond? When this happens to me, I assess the need, as you said the Buddha would do. Sometimes, it is offhand, someone just collecting change without conviction. Sometimes, I feel panhandled. And sometimes, I hear or see the need there. I tell them I don’t carry cash, but I can go buy them food, or what it is they need at a nearby convenience store. It is what I would do for myself. One woman I remember took me up on my offer and we talked as we walked to CVS—an unlikely pair. She asked for a drink, chips, cough syrup, and then asked if she could get batteries: her cassette Walkman which she held, had died.

    To me, happenstance is the only difference between us—our means, and that is transient. And batteries—for music—and cough syrup to stop coughing were her needs. $12 well spent. Her needs met were both our happiness. So, often, I am thankful for what someone asks of me, because I could not have felt the way I did without her.


  • I am pleased to find your thoughts on being compassionate. Acting in a selfless manner, yet being able to decipher what is truly helpful to that other person. I work with autistic kids and find that the stronger the disciplinary action/consequence to bad behavior the better. I let them know that I care for them and want them to learn to do better. So punishing is not such a bad thing but is actually compassionate. I’m trying to think of a way to allow the kids to be in their autistic world though and drift into their own imaginations without so many terrible consequences. When they need to function like other kids, I need to remind them. This helps me continue feeling compassionate for them.

    Lots of interesting and thoughtful ideas on the subject. Thanks for posting.

  • Alex,

    Thank you so much for this post and for your comment on my blog.

    As it turns out, your thoughts on what compassion isn’t was exactly what I needed to read right now. Very confronting. I guess I know this already but I’m not living this truth at all. I am far too often giving people what they want. Still pleasing too much. And I needed to be reminded of that. Time for a change!

    I will definitely follow your blog from now on.


  • Thanks for a lovely essay. Reminded me of a time during my late husband’s illness when I had the opportunity to explore the concept of compassion in a more direct way. A wonderful lesson at the time, and a timely reminder now.

  • […] Be compassionate.  Freed of the need to be liked, I can now contemplate compassionate action motivated only by the desire to add to the happiness of another person and not by the imperative to sustain my self-esteem, which makes it far more likely my actions will be wisely compassionate as I discussed in a previous post, What Compassion Is. […]

  • Excellent blog. I always enjoy your posts.

    Just my two cents: I used to work in an area with a very poor population and a lot of homelessness. I had frequent requests for money to buy food. It made me feel bad to refuse if there was a real need. So I came up with a compromise. I always offered to go to the within-walking-distance grocery store with the person so they could pick out what they needed or to the nearby McDonalds. No one ever took me up on the offer.

    Nicki: Such a difficult and complex problem, homelessness. I admire you for your efforts. Must have been difficult not to become jaded, having your offer to buy food rejected so consistently. Thanks for your comment.


  • I am coming very late to this conversation, and perhaps my questions aren’t pertinent to the particular issue you try to grapple with here, Alex. Still, I’m offering the following:

    I may be too much of a literalist, but, to me, compassion means suffering with. I don’t think it has much—if anything—to do with caring for the happiness of another. Rather, it’s about that moment of recognition in which you see yourself in the other person (or vice versa). It is almost impossible for me to avoid this reaction with people who are less fortunate than I am because, like “mar,” I feel in my gut that “happenstance is the only difference between us—our means, and that is transient.” It has taken me many years to be brave enough to do what mar does, but it does feel like exactly the right thing. I do not give cash, but ask what is needed. It is a very, very small thing, but I have never felt as if I showed my daughter something as important as when I engaged with a panhandler this way. Of course, one must assess the situation and risk, but to try to respond with humanity seems, to me, the real challenge. If you met a former neighbor homeless on the street, wouldn’t you ask what s/he needed? Even if s/he were a drug addict? And all of these people were once someone’s neighbor, someone’s child.

    What troubles me more—and more frequently, usually daily :^—is how to cultivate compassion for privileged people who remain oblivious to the consequences their self-centeredness visits upon others. While I can, in theory, view them as spiritually impoverished, they do so much more damage to the common good than do panhandlers, I end up feeling that “compassion” for them is misplaced. How on earth can you offer compassion to someone who regards him/herself as superior and who feels no discomfort on account of being oblivious? Is the answer simply to ignore them until they become aware of their own suffering?

    rdp: Reasonable people can of course disagree. As I wrote in the post, what you define as compassion I would define as empathy, which absolutely often accompanies compassion (and perhaps is a necessary pre-condition), but perhaps my response to your last question about the privileged will delineate the distinction best: I can have compassion (that is, care about the happiness of the privileged) because their self-centeredness is, in my view, merely the result of a different set of delusions that brings a homeless person to homelessness. People of privilege aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else—and often are quite a bit less so. In my view, EVERYONE regardless of station in life is deserving of compassion, deserves to be happy, and deserves our empathy. Certainly harder to muster for people who seem to be only concerned with themselves, but if you accept my notion that anyone can suffer regardless of life station, why should we have empathy and compassion (as I define them) only for people who meet certain requirements (eg-exclude those who are selfish)? Even selfish people “were once (perhaps your) neighbor and were once someone’s child.” Thanks as always for such thought-provoking comments.


  • And so frequently do!

    I think our disagreement arises out of the definition of compassion. The standard (OED) meaning is “1. Participation in another’s suffering; fellow-feeling; sympathy. 2. Pity inclining one to show mercy or give aid. 3. Sorrowful emotion, grief.”

    Caring about the happiness of another, I don’t believe, relates to this. Perhaps we could agree on the term “loving,” which at least in one of its senses “manifests itself in concern for the person’s welfare….?” It’s easier for me, at least, to think of it this way. I think we must be compassionate to all who suffer and try to cultivate a loving attitude to everyone else—even those who don’t. But I really struggle to do this in specific instances, where you see the obliviousness taking a toll on people who are already suffering. Or so it seems to me…..

    Grateful, as always, for your caring presence here.

    rdp: I guess with respect to compassion I’m moving away from the dictionary definition and more towards a philosophical definition. However, I agree with you about the relevance of the term “loving,” which in fact is what I think compassion is all about (and maybe therefore why it’s so hard to define). “Concern for the other person’s welfare”—yes, exactly. I’m just not so sure one needs to suffer themselves in order to feel that for another. Glad there are people like you out there thinking seriously about these issues and trying to embody good and right action when they can.


  • What a coincidence. Just this morning I gave $2 to an old woman huddled between her overflowing grocery cart of possessions and the wall of building. She didn’t ask me for it—my heart just went out to her and I felt I had to so something, so I did. After all, what does two bucks mean to me? Even if I will be unemployed come July 1.

    jrs: I sure don’t have the solution to homelessness but that people like you who are about to become unemployed still find the impulse to try to help others even less fortunate than themselves gives me hope.


  • I know that your post is about compassion, but I would like to reframe one part of it in the context of generosity.

    Generosity is related to compassion, in that compassion is one major motivation that results in the (often concrete, tangible) manifestation of generosity. Other motivations for generosity, such as fear of what the neighbors think, result in what we might call “false generosity,” whereas compassion results in genuine generosity.

    Compassion is always abstract and invisible; generosity can be visible or invisible, abstract or concrete. Generosity can help other people. Compassion simply reflects one’s internal perspective, and can’t help anyone until it manifests in the action of generosity.

    Compassion is like a general who stands outside the fray and watches the violence, feeling bad for the poor suckers who are involved.

    Generosity is like the doctor who risks his/her life running onto the battlefield to try to save the lives of the wounded.

    Without wanting to offend you, but in an attempt to shed another light on the topic here, your compassion serves nobody but you.

    It seems that by labeling the homeless person as a “drug user” your heart permits you to exile her. What if she wanted to use your money for her morning coffee? As a doctor, surely you must know that caffeine is a drug. It makes people feel better.

    You label drug addiction a mental disorder, but there are many experts who would not agree with that label. Once again, I have to ask if caffeine addiction is a mental disorder as well, and if so, if caffeine users are not worthy of our financial generosity because they would just buy more coffee.

    Your generosity has many strings attached. That is not true generosity. You are judging which ways of seeking happiness are acceptable to you, and placing your standards on other people. If you can’t allow her to spend the money on whatever she believes will relieve her pain or contribute to her happiness, your generosity is very limited. You have insufficient trust of other living beings. You do not permit freedom of choice or philosophy.

    If someone wants to deal with the suffering of this life by using drugs, that is unacceptable to you, since your philosophy doesn’t agree with drug use. (Though, of course, it does—however, the types of drugs are limited. Tea, chocolate, and even alcohol and nicotine are presumably acceptable drugs to ease the pain of existence, whereas cocaine and heroin are unacceptable…because they are stronger? Does your heart have such limits?)

    I think that you just wrote this to assuage the pain of your own conscience due to your inability to be generous with a fellow human being in need. You were overly judgmental, and decided that she wasn’t worthy of your generosity. Now, you (appropriately) are suffering due to the walls your have built surrounding your inner heart—the walls you construct each time you meet a person in dire need and turn them away, based on your judgments.

    Drugs are one way that people try to deal with the suffering of life. Certain patterns of attitudes, some very negative, are another. Would you refuse to help a starving person because they often created negative thoughts, and by supporting their food habit, you would be permitting them to continue their negativity?

    If you want to see true generosity, look to the sun. It gives its energy in every direction, regardless of whether someone or something is there to receive it. The pure love of the sun is what I aspire to.

    By the way, you are not the only one who is scared of homeless people. Many people are deeply afraid that homelessness and poverty (and other types of suffering) will spread like a disease, and “contaminate” their own lives. Hence, they avoid homeless people “like the plague” (an apt metaphor here).

  • This goes along with what Wendy above says. The study you site is in Berlin, Germany. Its homeless population may be 95% mental but in the US it is closer to 16% which is still quite high when compared to the mentally ill among the non-homeless population. Many are veterans or people like Wendy who are trying to get by and lose out on jobs to more affluent looking people. Below is a link to reference the 16% statistic.

    Malav: Thank you for the link. After I read it, I did another search for statistics on the prevalence of mental illness as well as substance abuse among the homeless and found a few links below that show a wide incidence by study and city. In retrospect, I should have quoted an average rather than just the highest rate I found to provide a more balanced view.

    https://www.unh.edu/sociology/media/pdfs-journal2008/Finnerty2EDITED.pdf (20-25% of the homeless suffer from mental illness)
    https://psychservices.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/43/2/150 (50 percent of those who had ever been homeless during the past three years responded positively to at least one mental illness screening question)
    https://drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol12N3/Runaway.html (In a study of 432 homeless youths in Los Angeles, 71 percent had an alcohol or drug abuse disorder or both at the time of the survey)


  • […] Be compassionate.  Freed of the need to be liked, I can now contemplate compassionate action motivated only by the desire to add to the happiness of another person and not by the imperative to sustain my self-esteem, making it far more likely my actions will be wisely compassionate, the importance of which I discussed in a previous post, What Compassion Is. […]

  • […] 4. Be compassionate. Freed of the need to be liked, I can now contemplate compassionate action motivated only by the desire to add to the happiness of another person and not by the imperative to sustain my self-esteem, making it far more likely my actions will be wisely compassionate, the importance of which I discussed in a previous post, “What Compassion Is.” […]

  • I am deeply compassionate by nature and by choice. I feel blessed spiritually by opportunities to give to others, especially in my job as a nurse. I’ve noticed that when I sense and respond to the true needs of others, I often feel a deep sense of peace. (Sometimes, I even have the sensation that there is a light above me shining on me, which makes me wonder.)

    Intriguingly, my experience is that compassion is both a choice and a blessing. I’ve thought a lot about why I am so compassionate toward others and toward myself. I think my compassion has its roots in a truly awful childhood, one marked by emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It sensitized me to the suffering of others and made me want to ease their pain. I’ve read somewhere that when something bad happens to you, you can become bitter or can become better. My choice to become better has helped heal me.

    I see compassion as the greatest spiritual good. As a parent, it is the trait I most wanted to pass on to my children, and I’m grateful I was able to do so. My son has become a firefighter and EMT. My daughter, 15, has suffered from deep depression and self-cutting, needing hospitalization 3 times in the last 2 years. I’m always amazed at her matter-of-fact willingness to let other kids know about her experiences and how she is recovering from them. She says she wants to do this to decrease the stigma of mental illness and to convey to others the hope of recovery.

    All that said, isn’t it interesting that our discussions here about compassion focus mostly on ourselves—and not on the needs of others?

    Nancy: I agree with your observation about how childhood trauma can affect us positively or negatively as adults. I’ve also observed that children who tend to exist on the fringes of popular groups, who likely feel more angst growing up (even without suffering the significant traumas you mention) tend to be more empathetic and compassionate as adults.


  • […] asked for money by a homeless person.  I wrote about that last situation in an earlier post, What Compassion Is, and since then have settled on the response I want myself to have, have rehearsed it in my mind, […]

  • […] physician, has a post on his thoughts about the nature of compassion toward the homeless at https://www.happinessinthisworld….Insert a dynamic date hereView All 0 CommentsCannot add comment at this time. Add […]

  • One of the first Buddhist teachings that really touched me was on the practice of right giving. It is not compassionate to give what will result in suffering.

    It was my 16-year-old-brother and a homeless man that gave me the best lesson in right giving I have ever had. When I was 11 my older brother took me on a fishing trip. This was long before cell phones and the like. We had plenty of lunch money, but unfortunately my 16-year-old brother had not thought of the need for gas money. We realized our mistake and put in just enough gas to leave us money for two McD’s meals.

    After getting up at the crack of dawn, hiking in to our fishing spot and then back out again we were ready for lunch. Walking to McD’s took us past a homeless man. He did not ask us for money, he didn’t speak to us at all, but for some reason my brother stopped and said, “How’s it going, man?” For the next two or three minutes they exchanged some standard chit-chat: “looks like rain”; “did you catch anything?” Just a few polite words. As we parted my brother asked if he needed anything and this man’s reply has never left me: “You are the first person to look me in the eye when they talked to me in days; you already gave me what I needed.”

    Of course we still gave him most of our lunch, we both knew there was hot food waiting for us at home.

    Much later in life I realized what my brother has is equanimity. When he talks to a homeless person it is no different than when he talks to any other person. We all want happiness, we all want less suffering. No difference.

    Kindness, compassion, shared joy, equanimity. Each informs the other.

  • I have been trying for some time now to relocate a passage I read years ago in a book about Buddhism and the basis of compassion. The gist of the passage was that every human being in his or her own way was a Buddha in progress trying to find the path to happiness, the way to the end of suffering. When one begins to view the actions of others in this light, it becomes much easier to be compassionate not only to those for whom our sympathy naturally flows, but also those whose actions are repugnant. Once one realizes that that repugnance is really based on our ability to see that they are taking a path that is likely to require a longer trip, something that they obviously cannot see, the typical reaction is to reject their approach. But we all are wanderers in search of the same thing. The fact that some of us have a harder time finding the way should evoke more, not less compassion.

    I raise this in response to the comments about how it can be difficult to feel compassion for those who are among the privileged who appear to be oblivious to the suffering of others. I feel even more compassion for them sometimes because it seems that they are struggling even harder to find the way to happiness and the end of suffering and attachment. It just seems like they are so desperate to avoid suffering that they cannot even bear to face it in others and yet increase their own suffering by constantly increasing their attachments to things.

    Julian: You have it exactly right.


  • Truly a classic post. Really thought provoking. Enjoyed it thoroughly. These are questions that have always kept nagging me. Thanks!

    Tinniam V Ganesh

  • […] are going through. We need to feel compassion (Do read Dr. Alex Lickerman’s post:  What compassion is?). We need to create […]