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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. Awareness

Cognitive awareness of suffering

2. Empathy

Emotional resonance with the suffering person

3. Action

A commitment to alleviate suffering

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.

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?

Voices in Compassion

Dominic Vachon, MDiv, PhD

John G. Sheedy, M.D., Director of the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine, University of Notre Dame

What is the role or value of compassion in global health?

“I’ve heard that some people in global health don’t always talk in terms of compassion, which is always surprising to me. Because to me the whole reason for the existence of global health is that, when there is suffering going on in the world, we notice that, we are moved by that, we want to do something, and we actually do something about it. So whenever one of those pieces doesn’t happen, when we don’t notice the suffering that is going on in the world, or we’re not moved by it, how can we respond to it? It’s extremely important in global health that we talk about compassion.”

Thupten Jinpa, PhD

Founder and President, Compassion Institute Chair of the Mind and Life Institute, Adjunct Professor of Religion, McGill University

How can we best cultivate compassion?

“I think the best way to cultivate compassion perhaps is to, first of all, recognize that compassion is a natural part of who we are as human beings — compassion is not something that we have to learn as a new skill. Secondly, we need to really pay more attention to everyday life, how compassion shows up. We take compassion for granted; we experience compassion, and then we move on. So, I think being able to pay attention to how compassion shows up in your own life and its effects, because when we experience compassion, we really feel a powerful connection with another person in front of us. Those are moments when we truly feel our humanity. Being able to recognize and pay attention to compassion, and then as much as possible, tie that part of who we are to our conscious intentions.”

Liz Grant, FRSE FRCPE MFPH

Assistant President, University of Edinburgh Professor of Global Health and Development, Director of the Global Health Academy

What is the role or value of compassion in global health?

“I think that compassion is the glue that holds all of the Sustainable Development Goals together. When we stand back and think about how these goals are going to be met, we realize that these goals are going to be met through collective action, which involves individuals, communities, and organizations making very particular decisions that depend on the belief that other people matter — that other people down the street, other people across the city, other people across part the country, other people on the other side of the world all really matter. Therefore, in order to actually make those decisions that involve change, people in global health need to have that  compassion in their heart. And believe that the actions they take are going to make something different in this world.”


“Global health is not just an academic discipline or one piece of work. Global health is really a whole movement. It’s about the whole values of healthiness across the globe, which manifests in a shared movement. To have a shared movement, we must have a shared heart, and compassion drives that shared heart.”

Shams Syed, MD MPH

Quality of Care Lead, World Health Organization

How can we best cultivate compassion?

“That is tough to answer because we are facing issues related to compassion throughout the world. Compassion becomes an increasingly urgent necessity to cultivate. Compassion is fundamentally a very, very local piece and fundamentally around human interaction. Compassion also goes much beyond health — I like to think that cultivating compassion can have an effect on hunger, poverty alleviation, and has an affect on a myriad of issues. Fundamentally, compassion enhances the health of an individual, the health of the family, the health of the community, and the health of a population.”

“Compassion is fundamentally important for global health and fundamentally important for personal wellbeing. Those that are working in global health often come into the field because of reasons related to compassion. Whether they’re able to keep that vision and drive is a question that remains unanswered. This is the type of question that needs to be explored more.”

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