More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Compassion Is the Greatest Virtue

My mom often reminds me that my childhood nickname was “Happy Boy.” She has vivid memories of me dancing around in public spaces, smiling at the most random things, and overall, being a very content kid. Growing up, people would often remark at how much joy I’d exude, which is why that nickname was bestowed upon me.

The context in which my mom reminds me of this varies. Sometimes she does so when she’s reminiscing about the past, other times when I do something silly while chatting with her today. But sometimes, she reminds me of it when I’m feeling a bit down, and I tell her about some of the problems I’m struggling with. Because by reminding me of my temperament as a child, she’s communicating that I have the capacity to frame whatever I’m facing in a positive light.

My mom is a maestro in the art of reframing, which is why she continues to remain an inspiration. She has the uncanny ability to take what most people would call a negative situation, and to immediately view it from another angle. She understands that pain is inevitable, but suffering doesn’t have to be the logical conclusion. Rather, pain could be shifted and rotated in a manner where there’s a greater lesson there; one that can be interpreted as something beautiful when you zoom out far enough to observe the landscape of your life.

If I were to distill my mom’s essence into one word, it would be compassionate. While this may be unsurprising to hear, I do think that there’s something interesting to explore here. What about her ability to reframe situations gives rise to the feeling of compassion? And by answering this question, can we gain insight as to why compassion is the perhaps the greatest virtue of humankind?

Let’s start with the first question.

Compassion can be defined in any number of ways, but the entry point is the ability to listen. I say “ability” here because listening is nowhere near as easy as we think it is. We often characterize listening as the period of silence where you’re not talking, but the reality is that your mind rarely listens during these moments. You’re often thinking about what you’re going to say next, or are thinking about something completely unrelated to the topic at hand (for example, what you need to get done later in the day). We signal our ability to listen by nodding along and saying “Mm-hmm,” but oftentimes, your mind is off in its own self-interested realm.

Real listening is when you synchronize your mind with that of the other. At its best, the boundary between “you” and the “other” completely dissolves, and you feel unified during this period of time. If you were to think back on the best conversations you’ve had in the last few years, they were the ones that went on for hours but felt like minutes. That’s because when you’re truly listening, time becomes somewhat of an absurdity. The thought of segmenting your conversation by arbitrary units make a mockery of the experience you’re having, so the motion to check the time seems ridiculous. That’s what real listening is; when you and the other are in synchronicity, and the impulse to think about everything else you have going on in life temporarily ceases.

But listening on its own is not compassion.

Compassion is what you then do with everything you’ve heard. Compassion is often depicted as this love-is-everywhere, all-is-well kind of thing, but in reality, it’s a kinetic force. It’s something that’s expressed, and any avenue of expression must utilize some form of energy. To be compassionate is to take active participation in another’s life, and to commit to that wholeheartedly.

This is where we now arrive at the art of reframing.

The practice of reframing can be seen at various levels. At the level of the individual, we generally reframe situations to make life a more positive experience. We take events and make the choice to view them through various lenses to cultivate contentment. This is something that my mom is extraordinarily good at.

But there’s another level to this. The higher level is where you could reframe your entire identity to that of the other, and to see the world through their lens. Some refer to this as empathy, but I’d argue that this is compassion. Empathy is to feel what another person may feel, but compassion is to do what the other person needs help doing. As it turns out, my mom is extraordinarily good at this too.

Listening is to hear someone’s plight, but compassion is to then offer to alleviate that plight. It’s to be involved in someone’s struggle; not because you’re obligated to or because you feel that you’re a more virtuous person in doing so. No, if you’re a truly compassionate person, there simply is no “you” anymore in that act. There is no personal gain, largely because the concept of your separate personhood will be illusory.

The reason why compassion is the greatest virtue is because it’s the most difficult thing to cultivate. We are apes with the ability to reason, but we are still apes. We organize ourselves according to status hierarchies, our actions are incentivized by external forces, and we are more self-centered than perhaps any other species in the animal kingdom.

But at the same time, we are apes with the ability to reflect as well.

Compassion stems from the awareness that we are all integrated in a way that we will never fully comprehend. As they say, the truth is often too overwhelming to bear, and this may be one of those instances. If we really understood how connected we all are, then maybe the knowledge of the world’s suffering would be too much for us to carry.

But that doesn’t mean that we should turn ourselves away from it. If you don’t want to face the world’s suffering, then the next best thing is to face the suffering of those that you already know. Chances are, there’s a friend or family member in your life that needs more than your thoughts and prayers. They might need someone to check in, to come over, to help hold them accountable toward a personal goal they desperately need to fulfill. There are many paths that could use your company, and compassion is understanding that you could take a proactive approach toward traversing it with them.

Ultimately, compassion is the greatest virtue because it’s the one that takes the most effort and intention. And if our very existence is proof that we can fight the forces of disorder, then compassion is the ability to show that perhaps in the end, we’re not just apes after all.


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For three more stories and reflections of this nature:

A Letter to My Newborn Daughter

Respect Is No Substitute for Love

The Beauty of Hardship

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