The Case for Compassion

What is Compassion?

Compassion arises from a deep experience of shared humanity and solidarity. It can be cultivated, harnessed, and channeled in service of social justice, health equity, and dignity. Compassion is much more than a desire to help. Mature compassion is not, as critics claim, an unstable emotion, too soft, or reserved only for privileged ‘in-groups.’ It should not be confused with sentimentality or pity, which stem from a sense of superiority.

Our view of compassion—informed by neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative science—is that it is made up of three essential elements: 1) cognitive awareness of suffering; 2) emotional resonance (empathy) with the suffering person; and 3) a commitment to alleviate suffering (action). We believe that these three elements are also crucial for achieving social justice and global health equity.

Compassion in Action

Without awareness and recognition of suffering, it is not possible to alleviate or dismantle the causes of suffering. Being fully aware requires openness, stability of mind, and the capacity for critical analysis. For a truly compassionate response to suffering—and for a sustained commitment to social justice—the awareness has to permeate our inner being. We have to feel the suffering or injustice, and be touched by it. But awareness alone is not enough – compassion also requires action.

According to the Dalai Lama, compassion “is not just an idle wish to see sentient beings free from suffering, but an immediate need to intervene and actively engage, to try to help.” In response to the incalculable injustices we see daily, the most urgent question for individuals and organizations at this moment is: “What can I do?”

At times, compassion is expressed by marching together in protest. In other moments, compassionate action is providing intensive, technical medical care, as seen in the heroic response of health care workers to COVID-19. At other times, the most effective compassionate ‘action’ may be simply sitting in silence and holding the hand of someone who has suffered a painful loss.

Where Compassion Meets Ethics

At FACE, we consider compassion our ‘animating force’ and ethics our ‘guiding framework.’ Compassion inspires and sustains our work, while ethics helps us understand what to do and how to do it. They are mutually reinforcing: one cannot fully grasp the scope and importance of ethical decision-making without a deep experience of shared humanity and solidarity. Ethics frameworks can fall short without compassion, which enables us to see a whole person or community, not just the parts relevant to a given intervention.

On a macro-level, our ethical frameworks in global health are shaped by overarching principles of social justice, human rights, and equity. These values permeate discourses and ideology in global health. Less examined are the micro-level ethics, which require us to constantly question our actions as global health practitioners. What can we do better? How can we more compassionately see the community, listen, and understand their needs? How can we make ethical decisions and work together to more positively impact and empower the communities we serve?

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