The key to thriving in life may surprise you; I know it did me.
In 1993, when our youngest child was two weeks old, my husband was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I became my husband’s full-time caregiver for three years while parenting three teenagers and a toddler. It was a challenging time in my life to say the least. Many people empathized with the difficult circumstance. However, very few showed any compassion.
You see, there is a difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is present when someone feels or identifies with the pain or suffering of another. “I feel your pain,” we often say to someone experiencing death, illness or any type of suffering. This demonstrates our care, we say to ourselves. After all, we have absolutely no idea what else to do or say. Those tragic events are uncomfortable and even terrifying to confront in conversations with another. We simply want to escape the situation so we throw out a simple yet empty statement. But we forget, perhaps, that those who are experiencing those traumas do not get to escape.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Empathy is very, very important. However, at times it may not be enough. Often what we need to offer our friends is compassion. When you are compassionate you are empathetic (i.e. you feel the pain or suffering of another) AND you help alleviate that suffering with some form of action. It can be something simple. You can:
Bring a meal
Call and listen as they talk
Stop by, without pity, for a short visit
Help with some of the daily chores for which they no longer have time or energy
Send a message that you care
While caring for my husband, I stopped working. I didn’t leave the house except to “manage” the children. Some people would offer me sympathetic looks or even say how sorry they were to hear about my plight. Sadly, other people simply avoided me. However, no one really offered to do anything to help the family, and this included simply being kind to my children who were acting out the grief and pain of watching the devastating deterioration of their father every single day. For someone going through a very challenging time, empathy is appreciated but compassion is essential.
I didn’t realize that at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I identified compassion as being missing from my life. I just knew no one was helping us. In our super busy lives and in our impersonal world, we can forget that the most meaningful parts of our lives are our personal connections. Empathy can be fleeting and quick, while compassion requires effort and time. It is compassion that creates meaningful connections.
For that reason, and many others, compassion helps us thrive. This discovery is the result of much research that has been and is being conducted at universities all around the world including UC Berkeley and Stanford University.
Dictionary.com defines “thrive” as to “grow or develop well or vigorously, prosper, flourish.” Researchers are establishing that with compassion, our schools, our businesses, our communities, our families and even our health all thrive.
Compassion helps us thrive, in part, because we are biologically programmed to be compassionate. For many years now, we have operated on the premise that Social Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest” governs our behavior and biology. The theory is that, by nature, we are selfish, individualistic and competitive. However, researchers have been dispelling that notion. Instead, they have found that behaviors like compassion and kindness are rooted in our behavior and biology. They are actually conducive to human survival and essential to human flourishing.
My family went through the trauma of my husband’s painful decline and death essentially alone. As his body deteriorated, fewer and fewer people came to visit until, at the end, no on came to visit except his sister and her husband. The lack of visitors was perhaps even more painful to my husband than the loss of use of his body. (Some people call ALS “the coffin disease.”) He was discarded even before he was dead. Compassion could have changed that.
Being compassionate feels good. There is biological evidence to support that when we give to others, it actually activates some of the pleasure centers in our brain. When we show compassion we are tapping into our evolutionary nature and our biology.
In our society, we tend to see compassion as a touchy-feely emotion best relegated to our church lives or our volunteer activities. This new science has recognized the inaccuracy of that assumption. Compassion should be and must be an essential part of our individual lives, our schools, our communities, our businesses and our world if we are to thrive.
It must be the case, as well, if we are to survive.
Originally published at medium.com