I used to believe that compassion and empathy were the same thing, but I had an experience a few weeks ago that changed my thinking.
The city that I live in has been experiencing a crisis around homelessness for some time and some decisions that have been made surrounding where homeless people are allowed to camp were made with the best intentions, but the realities of some of those decisions have fallen short of expectations. Before, the encampments were quite large and were located in just a few spots in the downtown area, but today they’re spread out in many areas away from the center of the city, are smaller and they look quite crowded. As I’ve noticed them, I’ve wondered to myself about the quality of life of the people that live there, where they’re practically stacked on top of one another in noisy and chaotic environments.
On a recent Monday, which is garbage collection day in my neighborhood, I walked into the alley behind my home to collect the emptied garbage bin and bring it into my backyard for storage. I noticed a homeless man sitting next to my garage and he looked at me warily and seemed fearful. I said hello to him and he told me that he would be on his way shortly, that he just needed a quiet place to eat his lunch and he requested that I not call the police to have him removed. I immediately dismissed his concern and told him that he was just fine where he was and to stay as long as he needed and that he was welcome. As I continued on, it hit me that this man, who I would normally pass on the street without a word uttered between us, was requesting something from me that I take for granted. He wanted to eat his lunch in peace, away from the chaos of his normal environment. I felt a sense of this man’s life and I had a strong desire to do something to help him and to ease his suffering, if only temporarily.
I went inside and grabbed a bottled water and went back to where he was sitting, and handed it to him, telling him that I noticed that he didn’t have anything to drink with his lunch. Based on his reaction, I had given him the world. We began to talk and I asked him how he ended up in the situation that he’s in. He told me that he was only 35 years old but that he had made some wrong decisions up to this point in his life that led him to his current situation. He told me that he slept on the streets and not in a shelter because of the drug use and the crime that was rampant within them. He said that people are sometimes assaulted while they sleep and that what possessions they do have are frequently stolen from them when they are sleeping. He felt safer on the streets. We parted ways, but I told him before I left that he was welcome to have his lunch next to my garage when he felt like he needed to do it.
That experience left a defined mark on me, and while our paths haven’t crossed since that day, I frequently find my thoughts returning to him, wondering if he’s doing OK. The empathy that I felt toward this gentleman helped me to feel and understand his emotions around his situation and compassion compelled me to help him and ease his suffering. While I wasn’t able to solve all of his problems, I could solve at least one by offering him a quiet place to have his lunch when he needs it. That experience taught me the difference between empathy and compassion and it made that gentleman human to me.
How can you exercise compassion toward others in your life? You do it by practicing empathy, which is being fully present with others and taking the time to listen to and understand their situation and what they’re currently feeling. Also, when you feel yourself at odds with someone, mentally toss your differences aside and instead focus on the commonalities that you have with that person, such as desiring love, security and happiness. Be willing to freely extend kindness to others, offering a kind word or gesture and helping with anything that eases another’s suffering. Keep in mind that being nice and being kind are two different things. Kindness comes from the heart.
Do these things without the expectation of receiving anything in return. As you practice them, you’ll find that you are uplifted, making the act of extending compassion a common and rewarding part of your life.