Compassion Over Justice

Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, 1636

When we employ tough love we are constantly generating the positive tension of assertiveness and compassion.  Let’s break down compassion.

What does it mean to be compassionate?  Emma Seppala, the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medical School, defines it for us: “What is compassion and how is it different from empathy or altruism? … Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior.  However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.”

I have observed the opposite of the behavior of compassion as being the behavior of justice.  The thought processes underlying these behaviors are empathy and judgement respectively.  I’m not referring to judgement as in decision-making, but rather the judgement of others.  When we judge others as opposed to feeling empathy, we feel temptation towards justice.  If we feel empathy, we desire to provide compassion.   

The temptation to make justice happen is a very human-like tendency.  We have evolved to be social cooperators and thus we strongly detest free-riders – those who would use the system to their own advantage without giving back.  We cannot stand for this sort of unfairness, this mutually exclusivity!  However, true free riders are actually quite rare.  All people suffer and most suffer undeservedly so.

An effective leader knows they are prone to judgement and sets their biases aside to study a situation with empathy instead of judgment.  When judgement happens, punishment is handed down.  At times it is tangible and aggressive (e.g. a quick dismissal) or social (e.g. a cold shoulder, a disinvitation). 

Too many times, I have unfortunately observed quick judgement and punishment in place of what should have been empathy and compassion.  We need to learn to let go of any need to judge or punish.  We need to let go of our egos.  This will only help us to see more clearly and make better decisions.  

Most people are mature, responsible adults.  We need to treat them as they are.  We can do this by employing tough love.  Treat all people with respect, compassion, and empower them to do better.  And if someone still lets you down, well then that’s on them and now you can let them go.

I invite you to think about how you can show your colleagues some compassion with the pandemic.  By the way, save a little for yourself.  Take care.


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