Compassion is a source of happiness, while self-centerdness can lead ultimately to violence. – Dalai Lama
What does that mean?
To me, this quote is about the dichotomy of life. In it we have a pair of polar opposites, with self-centeredness in opposition to compassion, or selflessness.
Compassion is the sympathy we feel when others suffer. It is also our own suffering in conjunction with their suffering. We become them, we feel their pain, anguish and suffering, and we share in it.
This bring happiness not from the sharing of sorrow, but the sharing of everything else, for sorrow and suffering are not all that is shared. In the act of compassion, we share everything.
We share in their lives and, when we interact personally, they share in ours. We share in their triumphs and they share in our joys. Compassion, when allowed, is a two-way street.
Self-centeredness, on the other hand, ignores the needs, the pain, and the suffering of others. All that matters is the self, and our needs. Others become obstacles and obstructions, to be defeated. Where does that lead?
Why is compassion important?
Compassion, or shared suffering, keeps us aware of what is going on around us. Yes, the world is imperfect, and we imperfect humans can only do so much to help alleviate the suffering. But by feeling the pain, we are far less likely to cause it, wouldn’t you say?
If you have compassion, and feel the pain of a person being insulted, are you more or less likely to insult someone else? Those who are more self-centered may become indignant and trade insult for insult. They have made their own needs and the overcoming of the obstacle more important other people.
With compassion, others become fellow travelers and compatriots, not obstacles. It changes them from an adversary facing you to someone sharing the experience at your side. They are people like you, and therefore more relatable, more likable, and more important in your life/world.
Without compassion, we become self-centered, at which point nearly everyone out there is either an obstacle or completely irrelevant. Can you see how the difference between the two attitudes would change how you treated others?
Where can I apply this in my life?
Consider your friends. Which of them are the most compassionate? Which are the least? How well does that track with their level of self-centeredness? While life is a bit more complex than a simple linear scale, it does track fairly well for most of my friends.
I would imagine that all of us have some experience with a bully. Where do you think they stand on the compassionate to self-centered scale? Even the ones who are afraid are doing it to protect themselves or their view of themselves. And they treat others as obstacles to their emotional well-being.
While there may be those who could make the argument that some can only be reached by reciprocation, such action will, by definition, make you exactly what they are. To me, that’s rarely a winning strategy. Consider what other options you might have, and try them first.
There may be some satisfaction in beating a bully at their own game, but in doing so, you have lowered yourself to their level, right? And does it help or further harm the initial victim? And does it solve the problem of the bully, or simply displace them, causing them to bully someone else?
Now that, at least in my opinion, a case has been made for compassion over self-centerdness, the next question is how to increase our level of compassion. To me, the first thing to do is to identify what holds us back from feeling or sharing the suffering of others.
For some, it is appearances. Are big strong men allowed to get emotional and have strong feelings when seeing the suffering of others? If they’re not self-centered, then yes. If they’re more worried about appearances, they’re thinking more of themselves than of others, right?
Perhaps we have strong feelings on an issue. Is it wrong to feel compassion for someone who breaks your strongly held beliefs? I can, and I would encourage you to try to do the same. They did something wrong, I get it. There will be consequences for their actions, I get that too. But can you feel compassion for the situation which led to their actions?
Once you have an idea what is limiting your ability to be compassionate, I would suggest trying to find single instances when you can feel compassion towards another. Start small, and then build towards compassion to all. I still have a long way to go, but I am going. How about you?