Words are fascinating, powerful things. They have the capacity to build and shatter worlds, share stories across millennia and evolve, shift and transform over time.
Naturally, they also have certain meanings and attributes that allow us to understand them properly. Some are descriptive, active or visceral, whilst others are explanatory, confusing and downright weird. Even though they are varied and brilliant, the one thing all words have in common is how limited they are.
How would you describe a tree to an alien that has never seen one before?
Can you really explain what it means to feel happiness, or joy, or pain?
Describing these extreme emotions so often feels impossible, using our linguistic tools to shape a masterpiece that is so far beyond their capacity and capability. How can you truly encapsulate a sunrise, or your favourite piece of music, or the birth of your child using something as finite as language? We try and sometimes come close to succeeding, but these are more the exceptions than the rule.
So when it comes to a word such as ‘compassion’, I have found it very useful to acknowledge these limitations before trying to understand it. The dictionary definition is simply, and rather blandly: ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others’.
This seems to imply that compassion is something that happens both in spite of us and to us. But for me, compassion is one of these words which cannot be defined, described or confined to such a pithy sentence.
Compassion can undoubtedly happen in spite of and to us, like if we were to see a child being bullied or a close friend lose a loved one. The feeling bubbles from our heart to our throat, tightening the muscles as it travels and sometimes overflowing to the point that it begins to leak out of the corner of our eyes. It is a manifestation of love, the ultimate expression of our highest self as Russell Simmons once said, an involuntary reaction to suffering or pain.
However, that is not all it is. Prince once said, “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries,” and personally, this is what I think the definition should be.
We can choose to be compassionate, as much as we can choose not to be. Everything is a choice. When you see a colleague at work receiving the promotion you so desperately wanted, it is a choice to feel happy for them or jealous. If your partner snaps at you after a long day at work, it is a choice to take it personally or to acknowledge they have had a long day and are momentarily drawn off centre in a way which causes them to act out.
Similarly, it is a choice to be compassionate for those who are different to you. Whether it be gender, religion, race, demographic, profession, age or anything else, the choice rests with whether you decide to identify with your own position or try to see things from theirs. It can be so easy to focus on how we are different, largely because we are so obviously similar. This compassion doesn’t necessarily come from their suffering or misfortune, it comes from understanding that the way in which you see the world is just one perspective and if you had their exact upbringing and psychological make-up, the odds are you would think the way they do.
But there is a catch.
You have to show compassion to one person first: you.
I like to think of compassion and love as a language; if you don’t teach yourself, how can you speak it? There is no point me going to Germany and attempting to converse when I have never learnt German. Often in yoga, we use the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane – put yours on before attempting to help someone else.
If you are unable to forgive yourself for any time you have gone wrong or made a mistake, how can you find it in your heart to begin to forgive someone else for theirs? If you begin to judge yourself for sleeping in instead of going to yoga, or not going to Pilates because you wanted to have a wine instead, how will you learn not to judge others when they don’t act in accordance with your expectations?
It is hardest to love yourself; you know every time you messed up, lied, cheated, flaked and went against your promises. You know all your shortcomings, failures, foibles and have to live with yourself every day. If you can forgive yourself for all of these things, or at least begin to, you will be able to forgive anyone for almost anything.
I read once how the best way to look at your life is as if you are someone you would like to help. You have so much time and patience for your family, partners, friends and colleagues and if we could exercise just a fraction of this kindness, this compassion, for ourselves, the world would be a much happier place.
There is a reason the word ‘passion’ is in compassion. How intensely can you love yourself and those around you? How fervently can you exalt your will to live? How passionately can you forgive? Compassion is love, our highest expression of it, and the more we practice it, the more we live by it, the more love there will be in the world.
You are worth it, and so is your life. In the end, we are all just walking each other home and it is so much easier to say goodbye with a smile, a hug and a compassionate promise of a brighter tomorrow.