Behind the scenes, and at the margins of daily life, compassionate people work to make the world a better place. They take care of the daily needs of sick people; rescue those in danger; give away money and resources; share power with the disadvantaged; spend time with lonely people; educate, clothe, and feed those who are cut off from resources. During an emergency, compassionate people show up to help. Compassionate people do all of these things, not as kind things to do, but as who they are. Their personal meaning and identity are connected to giving their best to the people they care about, and seeing them thrive. They are more likely to neglect their own needs and feelings than someone eles’s. What qualities make compassionate people who they are, and what is the best way to reach out to them when they need some compassion?
There’s a spark of compassion in all of us. Observations of babies in nursery groups consistently show that when one baby cries, most of the other babies cry, even when the other babies were all comfortable (not hungry, no dirty diaper, etc.). Babies tend to turn their face towards others who show signs of distress, not away from them. Toddlers will approach another toddler or a family member in distress, then comfort the person by showing affection or by giving them a toy or blanket, or food. They will then seek help from a caregiver. Drivers passing the scene of a car accident will slow their speed in order to observe the scene more closely. Drivers pass by cars that have been wrecked, but are clearly empty, at normal speed. “Rubbernecking”, usually dismissed as morbid curiosity, is actually a display of compassion for the human beings involved.
Some people have a more compassionate personality than most. It comes naturally to them to tune into others’ emotional state or physical needs, and then help in some small way. Many of these people gravitate naturally towards compassionate careers. A few of them do some serious “soul searching” around the decision. People in their twenties, who have enjoyed a service trip or volunteer work, often ask me for advice on whether they should enter a compassionate career. They have discovered that doing good feels good. They ask if they will be suited to the work long term, or if they will “burn out”. There’s no easy answer to that question, because a lifestyle of compassion gradually changes the giver of compassion into one who is more and more identified with the other, more and more committed to the thriving of the other, and less committed to one’s own thriving. It’s not that compassionate people don’t thrive. Their gentle radiance attests to their thriving. But they become more and more committed to doing good for its own sake, seeking the welfare of others over their own. It seems that the adage, “We become what we love” is proven true here. Being a firefighter, or an educator, or a nurse, or an aid worker, becomes “Who I am”. They are no longer satisfied to help in small ways, but to sacrifice of themselves until everyone is Okay. It becomes natural to them to run up the stairs of a burning tower; to lose sleep over how to how to teach a child who is struggling with reading; or to hold a sick baby through the night.
Because they focus more and more on the needs of others over the years, taking care of their own problems and nurturing themselves feels less and less natural to compassionate people. They expect to serve and give, and feel guilty receiving help and being served. They feel selfish, neglectful of those they are committed to. They see slowing down as potentially putting people they care about very deeply, at risk. This is a threat to their identity, as in, “What kind of a firefighter/educator/nurse/aid worker would I be if I let anything happen to my friends, my people?” They tend to think that they are “fine” and if they are not “fine”, they should make themselves better, because others need and deserve the help more. They have to be forced, by someone who has their best interests at heart, to take care of their own problems and address their own feelings. Their typical problems are the same as most people’s, including the economy; the stress of caring for children and elders; finding and keeping a great life partner, and keeping the relationship vibrant; health issues, and so on. More particular to compassionate people are problems such as bouts of anxiety and depression; adult trauma; over-focus on past failures; unhealthy diet and/or overeating; lack of sleep, and lack of financial savings.
Compassionate people need to first understand that their needs and desires are just as legitimate as those of others. They need to hear that they are appreciated and loved for who they are as much as for what they do. They need someone in their life whom they trust to talk freely about those times when they are not “fine”, and to follow up to make sure that the problem or concern gets addressed. They need to be told that taking care of their physical and emotional health is inherently important, not just as a means of keeping them active in their compassionate work. They need to learn that their failures don’t define them, but that their sacrifice has made them beautiful, and has made the world a better place in which to live. They need adequate compensation for their work, but they seldom press for it. They need to not be taken advantage of for their time, resources and sympathetic listening. They should be encouraged to prepare for the day when they must slow down, due to advancing age. This is more palatable to them if they are given opportunities to contribute their wisdom to the next generation taking up the work, and if they are not at risk economically. They need a hug! But naturally, they are more concerned for someone else who needs a hug. So if you know a compassionate person, extend kindness to them, ask how they are doing, encourage them, and follow up. You will be making the world a better place for the people who make the world a better place.