The Limits of Compassion

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Don’t be compassionate.

Compassion is okay. We can have compassion for others, and this will make us happier and more fulfilled. But we can do better: We can love.

The difference between compassion and love is the difference between walking five minutes each morning and jogging for 45. Compassion is generously, selflessly giving to others. Which is good. But how much better to give and not even realize you’re being selfless? This is a higher state of giving, at once easier and more profound in its effects on the giver and the receiver. This higher state of giving can only come from loving, which is the act of finding yourself in another person to the point that you stop thinking of them as someone else.

But let’s step back. Why give at all? The best reason to give has nothing to do with altruism or a better society; the world will be fine even without our help, and the world doesn’t need another martyr. The reason to give is that it makes you a better person by expanding your sense of self to include others. This expansion of self gets you closer to a feeling of oneness with everything around you, which ultimately gets you closer to God and a tranquility that transcends the slings and arrows of the world.

Compassion takes us half the way. We expand ourselves a tiny bit when we give, looking outside ourselves and perhaps feeling a kinship with others or a sense of purpose. There’s still the sense that we’re giving to someone else, however; there’s still an “us” and a “them.” Love dwarfs the expansive power of compassion because real love has no concept of self or other; a mother gives to her child because she feels connected with her baby and therefore must help, not because she wants to make the world a better place! Love done right denies any difference between the giver and the receiver, and this directly creates an understanding of expansion and oneness with the world.

Loving this way is easy but requires some unlearning.

Most of us have felt love or seen it in our popular culture, but we misunderstand it as an intense form of “liking” something. I don’t like pie, I love pie! I don’t like New York, I love New York! I don’t like Amy, I am in love with Amy. My love for Amy wrongly is attributed to my appreciation for her good or lovable qualities, like her beauty, brains, aspirations or unusual Oreo eating habits. Many of us love this way, and many of us think this is love. But it isn’t! It is liking something. Which is why there are so many divorces, why there are so many breakups, why finding love can be so hard! Even if we find love, we may lose it next week when the career of the person is ruined or their ideas change.

Family love gets closer to real love, but even that we misunderstand most of the time. First, we dismiss it: We were born into our family, and this is a special kind of love that can’t truly be recreated because blood is thicker than water. Then we pull out our “love is intense like” definition and decide that we love our family because we like having had a lot of history together, we like that we share genetic features and worldviews, we like having lots in common, and we like that they supported us in the past and pledge to support us in the future.

But the real basis for love is right there in the family if we don’t apply our faulty pop culture definition of love. We feel a measure of real love because we feel deep kinship. We feel a part of something larger: A family, a genetic past, our mother (since we literally grew out of our mom!). We expand our understanding of ourselves to include these few other people, our family, and this semi-identification with them is a weak but genuine love.

Strong, real love comes when we fully lose ourselves in others. It is empathizing to the point of identification. It is forgetting where you end and they begin. It is completely dismantling the calculus of your needs versus their needs, and coming to a place where there just is…needs.

We may have seen this sort of love in Romeo and Juliet or a classic love story. But this love is no fiction; the key is loving the essence of a person, that timeless part of them that was there when they were two, was there when they were 15, was there when they were 27, and will be there when they are 75. This essence of a person–what a person sees when they look deeply into another’s eyes–is timeless, changeless and infinitely lovable because it is us. When we find this essence, we identify with it immediately and recognize it as ourself. There’s oneness.

Finding the essence of a person is easy: Look in their eyes, search for the child in the person, peel away the layers of affectation and defensive armor. Say to yourself: I can understand this person. I could be this person. This person is me if I took a different path and was born with a different body. A mantra like this will get you there very fast. You can love everyone if you try.

For people who don’t believe in a higher power, this sense of oneness comes from feeling understood, accepted and a part of something larger. For those who believe in God, the oneness comes from loving the God that is directly in man, or loving Him indirectly by being his agent in love. Love thy neighbor as thyself, advised Jesus Christ.

Vedanta goes even further: Love your neighbor because it is yourself! “As man and God are in essence the same,” wrote that clear-headed Vedanta monk, Swami Vivekananda, “serving man and loving God must mean one and the same thing.”

He goes on:

“This notion of man as distinct from God is the cause of bondage. Our principle, therefore, should be love, not compassion. The application of the word compassion even seems to me to be rash and vain. For us, it is not to pity but to serve. Ours is not the feeling of compassion but of love, and the feeling of Self in all.”

Whether God is in all of us or not, compassion only goes half the distance. Don’t settle for compassion. Give because you love.

1 Comment

  1. by Mae

    On January 1, 2012

    For me, love is about understanding another person–connecting with them because you recognize yourself in their essence. For me, the starting place for this love is connecting with “kindred spirits”–people who I understand because they are, in their essence, so familiar. From there, I look for common connections with others. There is always some connection to be found, however unlikely.

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