I started thinking about the difference between empathy and compassion about a year ago. I had always thought of them as essentially the same, almost interchangeable.
Compassion has some emotional distance built into it, you feel compassion.
Empathy is more intimate in that you are sharing the feelings of another person. Someone is sad, so you cry, someone laughs and you laugh, too. Sometimes even when you don’t know the cause of the tears or laughter.
Compassion has always been troublesome for me because to protect myself from being incapacitated by other people’s feelings, I had to remove myself emotionally from them. I had to stop identifying with other people. I was not comfortable with this because I felt that I was losing my compassion for them at the same time. I didn’t know how to care about people without getting sucked into being them.
I was driving down a levee in the South Bay to a small bird refuge. The road was deserted, straight and narrow. It was set above the fields about 20 feet and was only as wide as the tracks of my car. The edge of the road sprouted a fringe of tall swaying grass that was almost white from the dust of the road. The rising sun hadn’t done much more than turn the world pale blue. The gravel of the road rumbled under my tires and my car tossed up a large plume of white dust behind me.
A small wild rabbit jumped out of the grass into the glare of my headlights then stopped right in front of me glaring back at me. Its eyes glowed blood red and were set on the sides of its head so that it was almost impossible to see both of them at the same time. I slammed on the brakes to avoid it.
From the left something blew in like a sheet of newspaper and when the headlights hit it I saw a huge white barn owl looking at me from its heart-shaped face. That moment of distraction was just enough to give the rabbit a chance, so it scurried away from the car while the owl flapped back into the eucalyptus tree where it had come from.
By this time my car had come to a stop and the white cloud of dust caught up with me and was following the rabbit down the middle of the road. Stupid rabbit was completely exposed should the owl try again.
When I was watching the little drama I was simultaneously scared for the little rabbit and frustrated along with the owl. But as the dust cleared I felt compassion for both of them. The hunter was going hungry and the prey had escaped death.
Maybe compassion is always tinged with sadness. Joining in with laughter always seems spontaneous, whereas I have to stop and think when it comes to tragedy, to sudden changes in fortunes. I don’t tend to think of laughter as being part of compassion, too.
When I decided not to carry my mother’s grief around in my skin – when I decided not to empathize with her, I also stopped being compassionate for her. I had to work really hard to get that back. Compassion for my mother could only come when I stopped identifying with her, empathy with her was dangerous because she was so depressed, she could have killed me, too.
Compassion let me feel my feelings about her. Sad, yes. But it was my sad, not hers.