Compassion: A Delusional Concept or a Practical Solution?

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Why should you choose to be compassionate to someone who emotionally hurt you? Why not just reinforce those behaviors you approve of and punish those you don’t?

Compassion, Symptoms, and Causes

We often look at a problem and try to solve it by treating the symptoms—a kneejerk approach that seems to make sense until we examine results. For example, has longer incarceration reduced crime? Does rewarding a five-year-old psychotic child for sitting quietly at a table and punishing him for throwing food significantly change his behavior? Does complying with an abusive husband’s request not to leave the house stop the beatings? In these and similar examples we treat symptoms while ignoring the cause. The approach’s logic is like patching potholes on a bridge and hoping that will fix a crumbling foundation.

Maybe we need to go beyond believing reinforcement and punishment are the solutions for all problems—beliefs that I as a clinician used to structure my therapy and counseling for more than thirty years. It’s time to become more sophisticated in understanding why people do what they do; why people are hurtful to you and how you can change it. Maybe the path is to be less behavioral in our responses and more spiritual. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more compassionate—not for any moral reasons (although there are many), but rather for a selfish one. It works.

What Is Compassion?

Compassion is not a new-wave concept. It’s not necessarily the same as love, nor a mystical notion conjured up by a hermit living in a cave, nor even a simplified version of Christ’s “turning the other cheek.” It is a way of interacting that yields beneficial results for problems resistant to symptom approaches.

When Thich Nanh Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk was asked to explain compassion, instead of giving an unfathomable definition he constructed a poignant visual scene: Look at other people as if each of them is your mother; the person who cared for you as an infant, when you couldn’t do it by yourself. So the next time you become angry, let that image determine what you say and how you act.

Compassion Instead of Anger

We become angry for many reasons. Regardless of what they are, the emotion is destructive. An old Tibetan saying is, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but you’ll burn your hands.” Anger often follows a behavior you believe is unjustified; especially if it was directed against you or someone you love. It can be an affrontive statement, ingratitude, or rejection by a friend among others.

In the wonderful movie Avalon, a family waits every year at Thanksgiving for an elderly uncle to arrive and cut the turkey. Every year he shows up later and later. After decades, the family decides to start the dinner rather than waiting. When he does arrive—two hours late—and sees the meal has already begun, he fumes, “You cut the turkey without me!” and leaves. His anger was so great he couldn’t understand why the family would do something so hurtful.

Righteous Indignation

Regardless of the reason for anger, righteous indignation often follows and takes the form of the statement, “If I were him, I wouldn’t have done something so hurtful!” Neither anger nor righteous indignation ever made anyone happy. But the effects of compassion in seemingly hopeless situations never fail to amaze me, both professionally and personally.

The importance of compassion was taught to me when I was a hospice volunteer and watched decades of anger vanish when a patient’s sister sat with him, held his hand, and forgave him for something terrible he did. Her compassion wasn’t intended to condone his deeds; her actions expressed an understanding of the circumstances that led to his hurtful behavior.

Does Compassion Work? The Proof Is In the Pudding

Examine your life and ask the question: Is there something that was done to me I can’t forgive or haven’t been able to change through reinforcement or punishment? It can be a relationship with your partner, a rude barista at Starbucks, or thousands of other examples you can describe after a few minutes of reflection.

Choose one and then think about the person who hurt you as if she or he is your mother. Can you understand how their unskillful words or actions were the result of preceding events? For example, was the ingratitude shown by your partner understandable because of a frightening chronic illness? Could the barista’s rudeness be attributed to something like receiving an IRS notice of an audit? And was your inappropriate outburst better understood as the result of a decade-old affront by the recipient of your cruel words?

My myopia and lack of compassion led to a strained relationship with my mother whenever we discussed racial equality. I was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and our conversations usually ended with my mother expressing disappointment in me and me becoming angry with her.

I began to have compassion—not acceptance—for her views when I realized they were shaped by decades of discrimination she experienced in Poland as a child and as an adult in a small anti-Semitic town in Eastern Pennsylvania. Although we still discussed civil rights after my “epiphany,” I never left a discussion feeling anger towards her. I felt compassion for what she had experienced that led to her convictions—even though I vehemently disagreed with her views of social justice.

When I changed my attitude, the words we said to each other became more gentle and led to my mother warmly accepting my daughter’s African-American godmother. My mother didn’t change because I punished her for inappropriate views, but rather because I expressed an understanding of her history.

Compassion: A Universal Antidote

In the Merchant of Venice, Portia pleads to Shylock for mercy. The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Shakespeare in the late 1500’s understood compassion makes the person who gives it and the one who receives it better people.

So the next time you find yourself angry or disappointed about the unskillfulness of a person’s words or behaviors, try an experiment. Be compassionate—not in a phony or rehearsed manner—but rather from an understanding that offensive words and actions can never be understood as isolated incidents. Everything arises from preceding events; from the sweetness of your morning banana to the insane comments of political leaders. If you can be compassionate—and many can’t—be prepared to become as blessed as Portia and Shylock were more than five-hundred-years ago.

As always, I welcome and cherish your comments.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Stephanie R Rogers

    Hmm. Understanding from where someone is coming with hurtful comments and/or actions is a very intellectual approach. I have used it most successfully in parsing my relationship with my mother. The result was the hurt became subsidiary to the root cause in her history, and I was able to forgive, though not forget. I am not sure that is compassion.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Poignant points. I don’t think what I’m proposing is intellectual. Actually, it is the opposite. Decisions when to use reinforcement and punishment with my clients was very intellectual: I had to determine what was appropriate, when to administer the contingency, the strength, etc. Compassion is visceral. When I decide how to react to a person’s words or behaviors, I do two things. The first is try to understand why they are doing or saying something that is hurtful. Then I imagine it is my mother saying or doing the same thing. How would I react to her? Forgiving is healing. Forgetting sometimes isn’t possible, nor is it necessary for forgiveness or compassion.

  2. Lewis Tagliaferre

    Good as far as it goes but I see compassion and accommodation as both reactions beyond control of the victims…yes, there are victims. Some people are and some are not and thinking differently will not change it. Can a holocaust survivor have compassion for their enslavers? Thinking about it will not change it. What are thoughts anyway? And where do they come from? Jesus did instruct on infinite passivism and forgiveness, but it seems to be beyond human nature. Everyone seems to need praise, empathy, attention, and approval -PEAA -but some are more gifted than others. I see it all as part of the will of GOD – generator, operator, destroyer as the prime force in the universe, ergo theofatalism.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Good observations. As someone with 36 relatives killed in the Holocaust, nobody would expect me to have compassion for the murdering acts of the Nazis–and I don’t. But I can understand the circumstances leading up to the acceptance of Nazism in Germany. As I said in the article, we can’t always have compassion. When he can, it’s a healing experience. When we can’t, we can try to understand the circumstances that led to horrific behaviors.


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