Compassion, Pity, and Helpfulness

An elderly man sitting on a sidewalk, cradling a dog in his lap, a cup in front of him for coins, eeling compassion, not pity, for a homeless man and his dog, and reaching out to help

Why Help?

As social creatures, we humans help one another. For their book, How Can I Help?, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman collected stories and wrote reflections about many aspects of helping. [1] Their book starts by describing a time when we lived in communities and helped our neighbors because the need arose and we were there. One simply pitched in.

But helping has never been that simple. Some of us feel another person’s pain and want to relieve it, while others of us help out whether we empathize or not. Maybe we feel guilty or ashamed if we don’t help, or we’ve always done what society or our family expects of us, so we try to be kind and good. We might help because we want to feel important, accepted, saintly, or wise, or because we’ve calculated the cost against the benefit and decided we’ll gain enough credibility, money, prestige, or reciprocity to make the effort of helping worthwhile. A few of us help so we can manipulate others, such as by making our neighbor feel beholden.

Helping Because We Care

Some researchers and research subjects assume we never do anything nice unless there’s something in it for us. Therefore, they discredit charitable or kind acts. Yet when disaster strikes, people rally together without thinking about it. In The Faith Club, a book about three women’s journey to understanding and deepening their faiths, one of them talked about the kindness and support that followed the attacks on the Twin Towers. Yes, there was evil in that event, but the outpouring of love was far greater. One of the women said, “I can see that enormous goodness existed that day, and that goodness can co-exist with evil.” [2]

Like during 9/11, helping can be a reflex that arises out of our shared humanity. In the best of all possible worlds, we would have a large community of compassionate friends and neighbors to care for us at times of tragedy and for whom we can care in turn. But strangers also risk their lives to help those in danger. When someone is rescuing us, does it matter if beneath her instinctive reaction, she is hoping to be recognized, applauded, and thanked? Is that so terrible?

No One to Care for Us

But not all of us can count on friends, family, or even strangers. The homeless die from the cold. Uninsured patients receive too little help, too late. The home-bound elderly sit alone because no one will visit them. Patients are discharged from the hospital without the resources they need to take care of themselves. They don’t receive enough professional help and often have no loved ones to take up the slack.

But this is not new. If, when the world was smaller, we had helped others all the time, widows and orphans wouldn’t have starved, parents wouldn’t have sold their children into slavery, and Jesus wouldn’t have felt moved to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). As you may remember, in that story a man is beaten, robbed, and tossed to the side of a road. A priest and a Levite each cross the street as they pass by rather than help the man.

It took a Samaritan, despised by those with social standing and an enemy to the Jews the injured man represented, to bandage his wounds and carry him to an inn where he could rest until he was strong enough to resume his journey. There have always been those who are “moved to pity” (Luke 10:33) or who show “mercy” (Luke 10:37). At the same time, there have also been those who cross to the other side rather than disturb or inconvenience themselves. At times, each of us has probably behaved like the Good Samaritan, but we have also behaved like the religious leaders who didn’t care.

Discomfort with Suffering

At times, though, we care too much. If we aren’t comfortable with our own pain, if we haven’t explored and worked through it, we may feel desperate to help because when someone else hurts, we hurt. Unable to stand our own suffering, we strive to please or make others happy.

Of course, even if our motives are mixed or we aren’t clear why we’re helping, we can still do good. Laughter heals; distractions soothe; escape gives us a moment to breathe.

Yet when we try to make others stop crying because we can’t stand to see them in pain, we cause harm.

When I was thirteen, I went to a talent show with a sixteen-year-old boy. One young woman read a poem about her father who had died. Hearing it, I started to cry, for my own father-figure, my grandfather, had died the year before. That was the first time since his death that I shed tears.

My friend was angry at the young woman for “making me cry,” so he went up to her afterwards and yelled at her. Mortified, I rushed after him, dragging him away. I understood he meant to protect me, that he acted that way because he cared. It was his misguided attempt to help. Who knows what wounds of his own he was trying to cauterize when he imagined he could soothe my pain by stopping my tears?

Yet in his distress, he made things worse. He abandoned me to my feelings, so I shoved them down. He hurt someone who was innocent. She hadn’t made me do anything. Her words touched what was already inside me, allowing my tears to fall. If anything, she gave me the gift of healing.

An elderly man sitting on a sidewalk, cradling a dog in his lap, a cup in front of him for coins, eeling compassion, not pity, for a homeless man and his dog, and reaching out to help

Who Is the Helper?

We seem to think that the act of crying is what makes us sad. But why? We don’t assume it’s the laughter that makes us happy. We understand that the pleasure in the joke causes our laughter. So why should we think that if we get someone to stop crying, that means they’ll feel better? People hide their feelings all the time. The hiding is what makes us miserable, not the release.

So who was the helper during that talent show? Not my dear friend who had not yet learned the wisdom of embracing suffering. But did the poet help? Her words thawed my heart, drawing out my tears. Yet is it helping if we have no thought of healing, and if we never know what we’ve done?

What about when our limitations bring us up short, yet we manage to rise above them not by any will or wisdom of our own, but by a moment of serendipity? Is that helping, or is it the blundering of a fool?

The Person Behind the Suffering

One of the people Dass and Gorman interviewed for their book was a clown who volunteered at a children’s hospital, going to the burn unit and the cancer ward. Early on, he peeked into one of the burn rooms and saw a child whose face had lost almost all features. It was a mass of charred flesh. Horrified, he halted in the doorway, uncertain if he could stand to go in that room.

As he hesitated, another child scooted past the bed of the first, looking down on the boy inside. In a matter-of-fact tone, the child burst out, “You’re ugly,” and the boy in the bed laughed.

In that instant, the clown realized that if that boy could learn to live with his life as it was, so could he. Then, as he gazed down at the disfigured child, the boy looked up at him. Their eyes met. “And all the burnt flesh disappeared, and I saw him from another place.” [3] He saw the child from a place of compassion, of love, of knowing that no matter what, this boy was a human being with a personality and a heart. When we can look deeply into the eyes of one who is suffering and not recoil, we can touch his spirit and treat him like a human being. That’s when we can help without running away. That’s when we can help rather than harm.

This isn’t easy though. “Nobody teaches us to face suffering in this society,” the clown said to Dass and Gorman. “We never talk about it until we get hit in the face.” [4]

Keeping Others at a Distance

Because it is so hard to face the suffering of the world, we often push it away. We pay professionals to care for the poor and injured, so we don’t have to think about them. When our hearts open and our compassion rises up, our fear can protect us from having to act. We ask questions like, “Is this problem too heavy? Do I have what it takes? If I offer to help, will I ever get away?” [5]

Alternately, we use judgments, labels, and theology to banish the problem. “That person brought it on herself,” we say, or we give someone a psychiatric label that means only professionals can help her, or we decide that suffering is part of life or God’s plan or karma, or we tell ourselves that those who suffer are blessed.

Pity is another way we distance ourselves from those who suffer. When we pity someone, we judge them as less than us. After all, our life is going well, and we can’t conceive that we could end up beaten on the side of the road, or burned, or abused, or cheated, or financially ruined. That poor person might deserve a handout, but whatever we give out of pity, we give with expectations and strings. We give what we think the other deserves rather than what she needs. As Dass and Gorman point out, pity arises out of fear. [6]

Helping Out of Compassion

Compassion, on the other hand, arises out of love. It’s the spontaneous upwelling of care and consideration. Through compassion, we connect with others. If we don’t fully feel their pain, we still understand what pain is. We can remember suffering from our own lives, and it doesn’t scare us.

From that place of compassion, we know we are kindred souls with those who suffer. We merge with the others and choose to learn who he is and what he needs. We don’t assume we know better than the one who is wounded. Instead, we trust in the inherent worth and dignity of the other person.

That doesn’t mean we imagine everyone is good and kind. We know that some people manipulate, lie, steal, and injure. Therefore, we are willing to take care of ourselves, too. Yet compassion allows us to see beneath the suffering that causes people to do horrible things to one another. The one who pities only wants to give to the “deserving poor,” yet the compassionate one knows we all have needs, and the greatest need we have is for love.

Sometimes We Need More than Love

That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when people need more than the felt sense of being loved. Sometimes, people need practical assistance. For instance, I was working with a patient who was having insurance issues. No one would claim responsibility for her medical equipment or home health visits, so she was sent home without the tools she needed to be safe or the care she required to heal. Distraught, weak from having spent hours on the phone trying to solve the problem, she called me, a chaplain.

What could I do? It’s not my job to fix things.

For a few minutes, I listened to her distress. Then I gave her a choice. I could continue to honor and affirm her feelings, or we could do some problem-solving. As I expected, she wanted solutions, so we came up with some next steps. She made a few calls, and I reached out to people I thought could do something for her. I encouraged them to phone her as soon as possible. Fortunately, one of my calls made the difference, and the woman got what she needed to be safe in her own home.

In some ways, she was a victim of our fragmented society. Alone except for a few friends who had their own challenges and thus were unable to provide much support, she was trying to take care of herself without the tools she needed. When our social system works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, people end up hungry, cold, sick, or dead. They feel degraded, judged, and shamed. All that hurting we do in the name of helping, all because we can’t look suffering in the eyes.

Professional Distance

As a professional helper, I also distance myself. While I try to open myself to each person, allowing myself to feel a deep and honest compassion for everyone I see, when I leave each patient, I let go of my caring. I’m off to the next person or the next problem, or I’m on my way home. Maybe I pray, ask God to take the suffering from me, cleanse myself. At times, this is necessary. The hurts we endure are enormous, and we can’t hold them all. Still, as a professional, I limit my helping to certain times, places, and methods.

This isn’t terrible. We need to maintain boundaries. Yet we also need to stay open to the intensity of suffering.

A colleague of mine talked about her struggle with this. She said, “Off-loading pain isn’t inviting me into deeper compassion.” She was talking about our attempts to distract people from their discomfort, the ways our fears interfere with our attention. Even when we want to be steady in the face of tears, anger, and loneliness, we fail. We change the subject, ask a leading question, try to cheer someone up. In this way, we hope to make ourselves feel better.

Opening Our Hearts to Suffering

The more we know ourselves and our shadows, the less we do this. We’ll never know everything that lies within the darkness of memory and discomfort, no matter how much we try. So we need to find techniques that strengthen our ability to stand firm in our compassion even when we feel anxious. My colleague found that what helped her get beyond this limited and superficial professionalism was the Buddhist practice of Tonglen.

With Tonglen, we breathe in the other person’s suffering. We take it into our hearts and hold it, cradle it, transform it to peace, comfort, and love itself. The more we practice this, the greater our capacity to open our hearts, to become one with the suffering of others. We lose our pity and grow our compassion. We learn to help rather than harm.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Dass, Ram and Paul Gorman, How Can I Help?: Stories and Reflections on Service, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
  2. Idilby, Ranya, The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding, Old Saybrook: Tantor Media, 2012, 5:58:15-5:58:25.
  3. Dass and Gorman 53.
  4. Ibid 52.
  5. Ibid 58.
  6. Ibid 92.

Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.