com·pas·sion – a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering [of that person]
Random House Dictionary
from the Latin com – together with + pati – to suffer, literally ‘to suffer with’
The Oxford English Dictionary
When I was teaching meditation in Mexico City, one of the new meditators spoke about a spiritual group they had belonged to. It was helpful for her until she noticed that whenever someone would come to the group with a problem, the group would join that member in their suffering. As if this would help. After seeing this pattern played out again and again, she ended her membership.
Compassion means we recognize the pain our friend is in. We identify with her experience in some way, perhaps because we’ve had a similar experience ourselves. We realize we can’t end the pain she is in, but we can help to alleviate her suffering: by knowing for her that the pain will have an end; by recognizing and reflecting back to her, her true Self, the part of her that is not touched by the pain; by helping her to see that pain must be felt, but that suffering occurs only because of our thoughts about the pain – why me? What did I do wrong? Why does God hate me? If only… Etc.
We never need to suffer. Emotional pain is a part of life. People die. We have disappointments. Loss occurs. But… suffering is a choice. We can make the choice in each moment – to be alive in the discomfort, rather than to suffer. To be present to the world and to our feelings, but to avoid the speculating mind and the suffering it brings.
And by making this choice, again and again, we show those we love how to make the same choice for themselves.
To suffer along with someone as an antidote to her suffering is like finding someone in a ditch, then jumping down in the ditch with them. They may be a bit less lonely for a moment, but it’s not going to help them get out of the ditch. What they really need is for someone to stand on the bank and reach down a hand for them.
“Hey! I’m stuck in a ditch!”
“Yes, I see that. Take my hand.”
“Yes, it is. Take my hand.”
“Don’t you feel bad for me?”
“I think it sucks to be in a ditch. I see that you feel bad. Take my hand.”
Today I will be an example of how not to suffer. I will remember that it is my joy, my gratitude and my insistence on not being a victim of my feelings or of the world around me that is the hand I reach out to those I wish to help.