We have an inherent desire to be compassionate. In the misery of another person, we see ourselves, if not in the present, than in the past or future. But compassion is not sufficient for helping people living with cancer.

In this three-part series on compassion, I will propose three steps you can use for helping your friends or loved ones living with cancer: the intent to be compassionate, an understanding of how the illness changes a person’s life, and how to transform compassion into helpful behaviors. In this first part I’ll explore compassionate intent.

The Relationship Between Compassionate Intent, Unique Worlds, and Helpful Behaviors

Think of the relationship between the three as similar to the problem someone faces trying to jump over a ten-foot span, one-hundred feet off the ground. He might do it by running as hard as he can, jumping, and hoping he makes it. Best case scenario is he lives. Worst case, well, we know what can happen.

But let’s say he takes a three-step approach analogous to the one for transforming compassion into helpful behaviors. The first step is his intent to jump over the space (compassion). The second step is understanding the physics of movement (how cancer changes lives). The third is to decide how fast to run and how high to jump (transforming compassion to helpful behaviors).

The Nature of Compassion

Some people think we are either born with compassion or not. Others maintain through meditation and awareness, compassion can be developed. Wise writers, such as the Vietnamese Buddhist priest, Thich Nhat Hanh, said if you envision a person in need as if she is your mother, compassion will develop. Others have written if we fill our hearts with love, we’ll naturally do the “right thing.” I wish the connection between compassion and being helpful were only that simple. We would like to think only compassion is needed to provide support to our loved ones and friends, but often it isn’t sufficient.

The Gap Between Compassion and Helpful Behaviors

I often find a gap between compassionate intent and helpful behaviors in my experience serving people with cancer. Most people want to do the right thing when it involves loved ones and friends. We know what we want to do, but not necessarily how to do it.

The problem is analogous to planning a drive from New York and San Francisco. You’re unfamiliar with the routes, so you go to the local travel office and say to the clerk, “How do I get to San Francisco from here?” she points west and says “That way.” The direction is correct, just as an open heart is necessary for compassion. Pointing west and suggesting compassion may not be enough to arrive in San Francisco in a reasonable amount of time or act helpfully when a friend with cancer needs it.

In Part II, I’ll share some of the elements that make the world of the cancer patient different than the world of someone living without the disease. In Part III, I’ll propose how to bridge the gap between your compassionate intent and helpful behaviors that can ease the journey of those of us who live with cancer.

An in-depth discussion on the topic of compassion and cancer can be found in my eBook “I Have Cancer,” 48 Things to Do When You Hear Those Words, available on all online booksellers.

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