empathy

Why Compassion Isn’t Your Gift To The World

Photo by Lupi Spuma for Lena Hoschek

Photo by Lupi Spuma for Lena Hoschek

A little over a month ago, at an intimate birthday lunch on a day that was so perfect, we refused to believe anything could possibly go wrong, my friend got a call. A mutual friend had had an accident on the highway, we were told.

And then time stood still for an instant, as the details reached us one by one. Her parents were dead, we were told. We don’t know if she’s going to make it, we were told.

No one said a word. As the minutes trickled past, and the initial shock wore off, I looked at my friends’ faces, frozen in silent horror. Their shaking hands, the ceaselessly tears, total and complete grief – and I waited for it to hit me too. But it never did.

Moments like these are potentially life altering. As I focused on their faces, the noise in the room blurred to a constant woosh-woosh in the background, as if I was suspended in an underwater cave. I saw myself as a detached, slowly spinning entity, looking down on alien emotions I wasn’t part of. I alternated between going out to make phone calls, finding a way to placate my friends, holding their hands and comforting them the best way I could in a public place.

To my horror though, at several points in time, I had to contain an inexplicable urge to laugh out loud at my own attitude. At my absolute apathy, at the thoughts in my head at the time – all I could think of was how this girl had been of no consequence to me, and I’d even resented her for a while for no rhyme or reason.

I’ve always been a rational person, and a fiercely loyal friend. But I realized then, that my love was like a compact, contained fire, unlike the warm generosity the whole world seems to possess. It burned brightly, but not for a lot of people. Three hours later, I was holding my friend close as he sobbed into my shoulder, soaking my clothes with liquid proof of his anguish – and even then my mind was in another dimension, fixated on the colour of his T-Shirt, on the half eaten cookie on the kitchen counter and how I really needed to run to the store because I was low on shampoo. Suddenly, smack out of nowhere, I was crushed. Not at her loss, but at the truth that I was now in no position to deny. I was petty.

But was I, really?

I spent the rest of that day, and nearly all of the night going over and over in helpless circles in my head. Ultimately, what it came down to was this – while losing your family and your center of gravity in a flash is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to anyone and while a part of me felt awful for her loss, another part was biased against her. And beastly as that sounds, it had a direct impact on the way I was reacting to her situation. It wasn’t like I wasn’t moved. I just couldn’t pretend to feel more pain than the rudimentary ‘oh my god, that’s horrible’ that I did for your average daily dose of tragic.

But that truly make me a bad person? I don’t react with ready tears each time I see a little beggar boy on the road, but my heart aches for him anyway. I’ve spent countless nights crying myself to sleep over stray dogs involved in accidents on the street. My grief is private, I don’t make a spectacle of it. So why then, am I judged for not feeling as easily as others do about a wide range of things, when I can say to a certainty that I do feel just as deeply about the few things that matter to me?

For the most part, I believe I’m a decent person. I help people as much as I can, I don’t hesitate to reach out and make amends if I’m wrong, I am unapologetically honest, and I’m outspoken to the point of causing discomfort sometimes. True, empathy isn’t one of my strong points, but does that make me callous? Being selectively sensitive is very different from being insensitive. I am so much more than the qualities I lack. And that is perfectly okay with me.

The problem with the world is that we’ve idolized ‘feeling’ so much that we forget compassion is a virtue with a whole rainbow of colours. It isn’t just black and white. If I laugh suddenly in a situation that most people would consider a tear-jerker, I’m not a brash stone cold jerk. Its the way I ground myself when my head is reeling at a hundred miles an hour on a trajectory of its own. If I fail to make an outward display of emotion, it could mean that I’m thick skinned yes, but it could also mean that I’ve grown to bury my vulnerability in a safe-place that I choose to access when (and only when) I deem it necessary. And that, contrary to what we’ve come to accept as the norm, is perfectly okay.

The point of this ramble is that it’s high time we stopped shaming people who don’t fit into the bracket we’ve created for empathy. Compassion is the difference between goodness and kindness. And it is a word that cannot and should not be described, because the moment you feel the need to talk about your compassion or shame someone else for their (visible) lack of it, it’s essence slips away.

Compassion need not always be wrapped in shiny paper and put on display for the whole world to admire. It’s time we accepted that restraint is a form of compassion too.

Tanvi Deshmukh is a nineteen year old woman from Pune, India, with an affinity for words and books, cats and coffee,Nepalese food and hippie music, and the color green. Currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in English, she loves poetry, volunteers at an NGO and plays the keyboard in her free time. Along with devouring books of all kinds, unless of course, she’s in the middle of heated discussions on feminism, patriarchy, gay rights, or what to name the neighbour’s new dog.