One of the most cliché advice on living a meaningful life that you will gather from people or the internet is that you should be kind and compassionate. This advice is not really far away from the truth too. Anybody who has ever selflessly helped someone, or given them a shoulder to cry on knows that these actions evoke a very primal feeling inside us that makes us feel better, feel like a contributing individual who made a lasting difference somehow (sometimes it doesn’t last). However, there is a kind of hypocrisy that we need to save ourselves from when making these gestures; when we overestimate the positive effects of our actions or sometimes aggrandize our own positions in contrast to somebody’s situation or circumstances.
What does compassion mean?
Compassion is one such cornerstone on which humanity is built. There is a deliberate use of this word in this article. To understand it’s meaning, we have to first break this word. It comes from the root ‘passion’. Now, many people associate the word ‘passion’ with “something that you are crazy about/ something that drives you”. But the real meaning of passion is ‘pain/suffering’. Over the years, the word evolved to mean “something that you ache for”. Compassion, therefore, had both ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ as its derivatives. Now, as close as these words are, they lie on the opposite spectrum in contrast to each other. While ‘sympathy’ asks you to stand in your position and be charitable, ’empathy’ will ask you to put yourself in the other’s shoes and understand their life before contributing to it.
While many people know the difference between these two derivatives, any altruistic person would choose empathy. But practicing empathy is hard. At a recent stint that I had interned with an NGO called “Project WHY” in the slumbering city of Dehradun, I came across many interesting students. The NGO has taken the financial responsibilities of 60 underprivileged children from a slum. It sends them to school, pays for their books, uniform, stationery, a mid-day meal, and their tuitions. They have also focused on increasing the quality of education in poorly funded government schools by giving another 150 kids private tuitions – all free of cost.
While working with these kids, I came across a boy who was scoring marks in the high nineties but had been performing badly in the recent exams. I called him and deliberately sat right next to him to inquire about his recent performance without the barriers that exist between a student and his teacher. He broke down! The kid brought it to my knowledge that the school was planning to bar him from giving his final examinations because his fee was supposed to come from the government, but it was 2 months late.
He was not from the NGO’s sponsored batch and therefore had no other way of paying his fee. He showed me his report card and showed me all his A grades, with tears in his eyes and asked me, “If you pay my fees, I promise I’ll get better marks.” I immediately took the matter in my own hands and assured him that it will be taken care of. The Project Coordinator chalked out the quantum of his dues and she was kind enough to call one of their local sponsors to pitch in the amount.
Two months after this whole incidence, I was visiting the center again. I asked for him and he came running to me. When I asked him how he was doing at school and how did he perform in his finals, he beamed with a smile and told me that he scored the highest marks. My heartfelt joy. He continued, “But how much should I get so that you arrange for the already pending fee?” I was stabbed in the heart with a cold knife. The local sponsor had cleared off his pending dues but had not bothered with his recurring fee.
As grateful as we all were, to that sponsor, for pitching in; herein lied the difference. He had sympathy for the kid. He was kind and generous. What he lacked was empathy! Being an industrialist, the dues must not have been a financial burden, and the recurring fees a laughable amount for him. But, the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and coming out with meaningful intervention was something that an empathetic man would have done, not a sympathetic one. I told the kid to just focus on his school and not worry about it. I took out that amount from my wallet and submitted it. It was difficult to arrange that amount every month but I felt proud to give somebody the gift of knowledge. He, in turn, taught me too.
The value of empathy over sympathy.
The NGO is doing a wonderful job for vulnerable kids of the slum. They can be reached at //projectwhy.org/