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Compassion: Explorations of Its Nature & Function

The term “compassion” or its analogs exist in many religious cultures of the past. The harsh living conditions forced people to gather in social groups, increasing the chances of survival. To maintain good quality relationships and be a viable social community, people need to be compassionate and empathetic, and conversely, the inability to express compassion leads to social isolation (Gilbert). This paper aims to oversee the different angles of the concept of compassion.

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In Tibetan philosophy, compassion is indispensable for a person’s spiritual development and enlightenment, such as love, gentleness, and warmth. Still, it also includes respect for the other and response to him. Thomas Aquinas defined compassion as an inner manifestation of benefactor, mercy, deep sympathy for someone experiencing distress, and an urge to help this person, if possible (Seppälä et al.). Unlike Eastern philosophies, in Christianity, compassion has a connotation of sacrifice in the name of someone, stemming from a deep feeling of love, which is initially loved for God.

Aristotle’s position on the issue of compassion is quite interesting. In his opinion, kindness should be experienced for “those close to us,” “when everything happens to them that we fear for ourselves.” People who have already suffered and those who consider others good people who do not deserve unhappiness are capable of compassion. This means that there are people who are incapable of experiencing feelings of compassion (Seppälä et al.). Aristotle refers to them as those “who” wholly perished, “therefore, he believes that he has already experienced everything and lost those who consider themselves quite happy and therefore behave arrogantly; and those who do not love anyone at all and consider all people wrong.

Modern Theory of Compassion and Empathy

Traditionally, in everyday life, the humanization of relations between people is associated with sympathy, compassion, and the ability to understand another person and imbue with his sorrows and joys. In psychology, these most important abilities are summarized by the concept of “empathy.” The word “empathy” comes from the Greek “empateia” – “empathize” and is considered in psychology as the ability of an individual to emotionally respond to the experiences of another, comprehension of his emotional state (Seppälä et al.). In this interpretation of empathy, there is a property of emotions – excitement (Gilbert). In this connection, in the works of a number of authors, empathy appears under the terms compassion, benevolence, sensitivity, social sensitivity, humane relations, emotional identification, empathy, etc.

The starting point or starting level can be considered the formation of a concept within the framework of philosophical disciplines. It was designated by the term “sympathy” and was associated with developing moral feelings and altruistic behavior. As for empathy, it is characterized by both conceptual and terminological underdevelopment (Seppälä et al.). The term itself came to scientific psychology at the beginning of the XX century. From philosophy – the word “empathy” E. Titchener translated the German word “Einfuhlung” – “to feel in…”, which T. Lipps, in his concept of aesthetic education, described the process of understanding works of art, objects of nature, and later – and person.

In 1934, in one of his works, J. Mead defined empathy as “the ability to accept the role of another person.” Gradually, the emphasis shifts from an emotional reaction to understanding the other in a certain way: through “imaginary reincarnation,” “introjection,” “acceptance of the point of reference of the other” (Seppälä et al.). The process, understood in this way, can no longer be purely emotional: the cognitive element is added to the affective component.

Furthermore, the development of ideas about empathy comes from understanding empathy as a response with feelings to feel to the affective-cognitive process of understanding the inner world of another as a whole. A new impetus to the development of ideas about empathy and its research in recent decades has been given by humanistic psychology, primarily by K. Rogers. Empathy began to be discussed in the context of psychotherapy. After that – in the realm of the actual human practice of the pedagogical process, family life, etc., K. Rogers defined empathy as “a way of being with another person” (Seppälä et al.). This basically means entering the inner world of another and being sensitive to changes in sensory values ​​continuously occurring in another person.

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Self-compassion means showing kindness to yourself in moments of pain or failure, the ability to perceive your experience as part of a common human experience and consciously deal with negative feelings. K. Neff identified three components in self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and consciousness. Self-kindness means that a person treats himself warmly and supports himself. The nest term relates to the perception of one’s personal experience as part of all human experience; this means that a person views his mistakes and failures not from a selfish position but as tests that many people have already gone through over the centuries. This allows one to be more forgiving of one’s failures and weaknesses. Consciousness means openness to experience, as it is (outer pole) and exposure to one’s feelings (inner pole) without avoiding or distorting them since, in a period of pain or failure, one must first simply identify his or her experiences. It does not allow a person to be captured entirely by negative experiences: feelings remain noticed, but they do not take over the individual. Low consciousness, on the contrary, is often characterized by excessive identification with emotions and their improper generalization, expressed in the fact that a person generalizes individual experiences and events (López et al.). This means that he has a chance to consider himself a loser after one mistake, which will affect his experience of self-worth.

Buddhist philosophy says that pity is essential to love and take care of yourself genuinely. Despite this, many people find it easier to feel compassion for others than for themselves, especially if the “others” are close, such as a child, sexual partner, or close friend (Seppälä et al.). However, without self-love and self-acceptance, a person can take care of another but forget about their own needs, and eventually, this will lead to burnout (Gilbert). Cultivating a more compassionate attitude towards yourself and others is an essential component of mindfulness of movement in therapy.

Boundaries of Compassion

One of the most challenging problems remains open: should we all always forgive our enemies for staying compassionate? The question of the boundaries of mercy and help to one’s neighbor is quite disputable even today. Thus, euthanasia being assistance in death raises uncertainties and discussions worldwide: should we relieve one’s dying sufferings, hastening his death? In other words, can euthanasia be considered an act of compassion, or is it a crime? Finally, the question is, to whom should our compassion extend: is it only concerning a person? Ancient Indian philosophers, misanthrope A. Schopenhauer, altruist A. Schweitzer, and many others were united here: compassion is a feeling that a person should show to all living things since he is a person.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Paul. “Explorations into the nature and function of compassion.” Current opinion in psychology 28 (2019): 108-114.

López, Angélica, et al. “Compassion for others and self-compassion: Levels, correlates, and relationship with psychological well-being.” Mindfulness 9.1 (2018): 325-33.

Seppälä, Emma M., et al., eds. The Oxford handbook of compassion science. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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