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OnWords: Compassion


I hear the word “compassion” in surprising places these days, such as in health service delivery, education, and even those who study communication patterns.

Those on the side of using this word, and I count myself one, believe that we should think more, and better, about people’s feelings and situations before we act.

This does not mean that we don’t do the things we were going to do. It means that do them in a kinder, gentler, way.

And that’s the problem with using the word “compassion” to describe this approach to things.

At its root, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and a kinder and gentler approach is really just a way for us not to feel bad about doing things that hurt feelings or harm lives.

In this use, “compassion” stands in for “pity,” the feeling charities exploit when they show pictures of starving children to get us to open our wallets.

It’s not ending the starving kids’ suffering that we’re worried about but ending ours.

True compassion takes into account the role we play in their starvation. We suffer with when we’re emotionally close enough to the problem that their pain is real for us.

True compassion is radical. It’s dangerous to the status quo. Using the word well would mean using it much more rarely than we do.