It’s a good question. Compassion comes from empathy, the ability to ‘feel with’ the experience of others. However, it does not mean taking over their feelings – that’s just another kind of violence. How tempting is it to think, or even say: “I know exactly how you feel, it happened to me too”? It may possibly be empathy, but not compassion.
How about sympathy? It’s another case of empathy gone wrong: an outlet for my wish to feel superior to you. “Oh you poor thing, I feel so sorry for you.”
‘Taking over” and sympathizing are both ways of keeping distance. Compassion keeps no distance, while still marking the boundary between you and me. It allows me to ‘feel with’ you, as an equal, without taking on your suffering (and thus doubling it). Walking this tightrope is the way to true compassion. This is what I have come to believe.
Why should we bother, if it’s so difficult?
Perhaps compassion is a prerequisite for our survival as a civilization? Imagine a world where a teacher can feel compassion for every pupil, without burning out. Where a business leader can feel compassion for all beings, and reflect that in his/her decisions. Where every politician can ‘afford’ to feel and express compassion not only for constituents but also for fellow politicians – rivals as well as comrades. Where every doctor can meet each patient with compassion.
Scary or not: would it not be a better world?