Our Capacity for Compassion

compassion-2I’ve heard it said  before that we only use a small percentage of our brain’s potential. It’s funny that we don’t talk the same way about our heart’s potential. By “heart” I don’t mean that organ that chugs away in the chest; I mean our potential for compassion, for empathy, for open-ness to others and to the “thrust of grace” (to borrow from a Bruce Cockburn lyric). People challenge their bodies through exercise; they challenge their brains through study, craft and Luminosity; they challenge themselves to learn new things and experience new things, to grow and add more “tools” to their own toolboxes. In many ways, being human is about that momentum forward. When we stagnate we feel it. Not always consciously but we sense something is wrong. A lot of our great art and great intellectual advances can probably be traced back to that desire to keep moving, to keep learning, to keep experiencing, to keep tapping into the great reserve of creativity and potential we carry with us through our brief years of life.

Certainly, the capacity for human beings to do great things seems to have no boundaries. But I find more and more in an age of warp-speed technological advances and unprecedented prosperity in the western world, we are forgetting to tap into the power we have for Good – grace and mercy and forgiveness and kindness; we have barely scraped the surface of our capacity for compassion.

The irony, of course, is that we are more connected now than ever before. When I traveled to Spain as a young man in 1987, connecting with my parents back in the States was a major challenge. I may have spoken on the phone with them about three or four times in my four months overseas. We communicated through letters which would take a couple of weeks, at best, to arrive. Now, if a young person is separated from their mom and dad by thousands of miles and an ocean or two, Skype puts them face-to-face in seconds. We can send instant messages practically anywhere in the world. The distance that keeps people apart shrinks when there are so many ways to connect, to stay in touch, to communicate information with such mind-boggling speed to those of us who grew up in the pre-internet world. And yet I sense in the shrinking of distances in this way a corollary: a shrinking in the compassion quotient in our lives; a decreasing ability to expand our hearts to embrace people around us.

Currently I am one of the many drones who ride the buses to work in Ottawa. I have been struck by the  masses of mostly glum humanity that cram onto those grossly utilitarian vehicles and lurch around from stop to stop, trying their best not to make eye contact, heads bowed down with a focus on screens, thumbs being the only thing moving as they stay connected with someone, anyone, who isn’t sitting or standing next to them on the morning commute. Earphones and I-Pods insure the ability to interact with others is kept to  minimum. However, even a near-Luddite like myself, who must seem like an anachronism when I actually pull out a real book to read on the bus, has bought into the Near-Death March that is the joyless journey to work and school in the early hours of each day. It is far easier to keep to oneself, to exist in your own personal bubble, than to break a barrier between yourself and a stranger. I find something keeps me back, more than just a shyness or some social anxiety.

It is said that we can exercise our brains, make them stronger and more pliable, and increase our ability to tap into all that untapped grey matter. Could it be that to tap into all our untapped capacity for compassion we also need to exercise loving kindness more often? Maybe in our society today we’ve just become flabby when it comes to caring for others. We don’t put in the daily reps needed to strengthen our hearts and a sort of compassion atrophy is the result.

For myself, to grow stronger in compassion means being intentional about pulling myself away from a focus on myself. Occasionally, I’ll find myself on that dismal bus ride on a weekday morning, considering the people around me. What are their stories? Have they fallen in love? How many times have their hearts been broken? I don’t know them, likely never will know them, yet there are dozens of people who do and cherish them as a dear friend, spouse, child, neighbor, parent. Occasionally, I’ll find myself saying a silent prayer for someone. Bless them today. Be with that mom with a couple of small kids in tow. Make that young person’s dreams a reality. Give them a great day. Occasionally, I’ll find myself smiling, appreciating human moments, individual quirkiness, the wondrous patchwork quilt that is People.

It is times like those when I feel my capacity for compassion, when I sense the deep well I have to draw from. It is times like those when I truly realize that, yes, we are all in this together and it is so great to be alive right now, right here. I guess I have moments when, like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes in a day.

Our capacity for compassion is great and greatly untapped. But when you hop into someone else’s skin and walk around in it for awhile, you get an overwhelming sense of how we are created to love one another. It is quite a gift to be able to feel this way, when you think about it. We’ve been given so much and we have so much to give to others and our world.  Our time here is too short to not exercise the ability to care.

In the end, when we are dead and gone, quite likely we’ll want people to remember us not for the breadth of our intellect or for our impressive muscle tone, but for our inexhaustible ability to embrace the world around us. I’ll try to keep that in mind on tomorrow’s commute.

12 thoughts on “Our Capacity for Compassion

  1. Jonathan Weverink says:

    Hi Ron, thank you for your reflection. I was thinking about your words on compassion, and it made me think that compassion even does not care about being remembered. Compassion means not having to worry.


    • Nice definition, Jonathan. Compassion is such a huge concept, I was a bit overwhelmed when I started to write a simple blog about it! It struck me that compassion isn’t insecure as well.


  2. Brian says:

    Ron, just found this now. Your most excellent and pithy discourse on an even more excellent subject is, well, excellent! Fun to read, keep up the ‘using of your gifts!’.


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