Personal Growth

The Difference Between Compassion and Pity

The Difference Between Compassion and Pity
In a world with so much suffering and pain, compassion has the ability to connect and heal. Starting with our families and friends, and extending into larger communities, and out to the world in general, compassion can open our hearts and souls to a greater way of living.

The trick is that compassion means different things to different people. A lot of it boils down to an individual’s motivation. From the big picture, there are two primary motivations that drive compassion: sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy comes from the ancient Greek word sunpathos, which includes the concept of suffering and pity, whereas empathy comes from the Greek word empátheia, which means passion. To actually feel someone's pain is to be empathetic, and to be passionate to help that person create a different experience. This usually has a positive effect on both individuals.

The Pitfall of Pity

While it’s true that there is tremendous suffering in this world, assuming that another is suffering has the potential to make matters worse. In some cases a sympathetic reaction to their suffering may perpetuate their level of pain.

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras says, "To curse the act of falling down on the path may be to curse the very thing you needed to experience to take the next step." In other words, if you take pity on another’s experience you may prevent them from finding the deeper lesson they are about to gain.

The downside of pity is that you are potentially seeing the person as being “less than,” and may in some way contribute to their suffering. In an extreme, seeing someone as a victim holds that person in the space of being a victim.

How to Show Compassion

True agents of compassion, like Mother Theresa, never see the people they help as victims, rather as individuals who are going through painful moments. This requires a more empathetic reaction. When you look upon those in need with compassionate eyes, you can act as a support or lend a helping hand if needed.

During difficult times, it’s powerful and healing to have someone who can be there to hold a safe space for you. With empathy-based compassion, you share the experience with another. You feel that person's pain, you’re there for them, hand-in-hand, as a source of support and guidance.

When you have empathy-based compassion you become a foundation on which that person can lean. Support that is given from the heart allows the individual who is experiencing a difficult time to learn from his or her experience and grow from it.

In life, lessons provide us with new ways of being, and it's during the low points that we sometimes find the most valuable lessons. Showing compassion means being there for another without judgment—being a pillar next to which they can stand.

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