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What Difference Can Compassion Make?

A few years ago, I attended an inspiring lecture on compassion given by Dr. Christopher Kukk, profession of Political Science at Western Connecticut University. Dr. Kukk mentioned the Syrian refugee crisis and how the heartbreaking photograph of 3 year-old Aylan Kurdi immediately impacted policy. Instead of the news only focusing on crowded boats and borders, this picture of a single child whose body washed up on a Turkish beach humanized the crisis and elicited compassion where there had been relative indifference. Similarly, when the Pope visited the US during this crisis, he called attention to our common humanity, stating “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation”.

In his lecture, Dr. Kukk highlighted the differences between empathy and compassion. His distinction is that empathy i s feeling the same emotion as another person, whereas compassion is a two-step process involving thorough understanding of the suffering or problem that a person i s experiencing and taking action to resolve it. Interestingly, empathy “lights up” the same part of the brain as pain. Compassion activates the same area as love.

Suffering, unrecognized, is the underlying cause of trauma, alienation and isolation. Whenever the underlying fabric in society becomes fragmented and frayed, violence, suicide, addiction, mental illness and physical illness increase. How can we, as citizens of the world, and as members of our therapeutic community, work together to alleviate suffering, conflict, inequality and isolation? Scientific evidence has demonstrated that compassion is a vital part of building and sustaining thriving, healthy and resilient institutions and communities.

Since its inception in 2009, The Charter for Compassion has been adopted by many countries, cities, and universities throughout the world. A central tenet is compassionate actions are critical to the survival of the world and that of its inhabitants.

In Connecticut, the Ana Grace Project i s an excellent example of such an effort. It was founded by Nelba Marquez-Greene, LMFT, to honor her daughter, Ana Grace, who lost her life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. In 2013 the Project sponsored a conference, “Love Wins: A Conference on Promoting Love, Connection and Community for Every Child and Family”. It brought together a diverse group of professionals including mental health practitioners, educators, clergy, parents, medical personnel, and members from law enforcement to collaborate in fostering community and connection. The message was that we must find ways to bridge our differences and work together to minimize the likelihood of marginalization and divisiveness. With the potential threat of nuclear war, the never ending slew of mass shootings, the heightened tensions over racial divides and the rancor and schisms in our body politic, we need all the compassion that we can muster.