there's a difference between empathy and compassion. it's easy to be empathetic, even natural, because all you have to do is have lived and retain the ability to recognize yourself in others. empathy flourishes over distance, but compassion is something more immediate and much more difficult to develop. i can empathize infinitely, but actually offering up compassion for another human being takes a lot of work. i can be moved by someone else's tribulations; i can feel terrible and write poetry and wish there were something more substantial i could do; i begin also to empathize with the prayerful. but i don't know if it's possible to extend real compassion to anyone other than the people with whom i am absolutely closest. if i call up the estranged aunt with the dying sister, would she receive it as a hollow gesture? or would it be awkward, a hopelessly tangled situation? if i do call her, it's more about her relationship to me than it is to her sister. does it bring comfort to develop new ties when old ones are severed, or does it merely augment the absence?
i can donate money to relief programs for the poor and the hungry; i can join organizations and try to make the world a better place. i will do these things, but compassion drives none of them. i can't even say empathy plays a part, because although i have lived through some horrible things, i have no way of approximating how these people feel because my experiences are completely separate from theirs. my desire to do what i can to heal the earth has a lot more to do with a desire to be useful, to create a purpose for myself, to touch something with my own hands and hope to be able to say, "i've made this better, because i was here." there's a lot of selfishness wrapped up in charity. i don't feel like i am a better or worse person because of it, necessarily. isn't that all anyone can do? figure out what is best, put your ideas forth into actions, with no real way of knowing what their consequences will be, and hope for the best. i have yet to construct a better plan of action.
empathy burns most strongly for my closest friends and family members, and even sometimes for livejournal friends. (there's something to be said for proffering your intimate thoughts to perfect strangers.) compassion follows naturally, but i've noticed that it still takes a bit of work to actually put forth. compassion is more than an expression of condolences, or a nod of the head. it's forcing yourself to feel with another human being, not for them. it involves offering your most honest thoughts and as much of your time as you are able to. maybe the desire to mend ties and build sanctuaries comes from reading too many novels: i devote so much energy to empathizing with fictional people and their fictional worlds that i need some palpable outlet for all that healing energy. and healing energy is what it is, i think.
but compassion is what makes lives worth living, isn't it? it's love made tangible. it's that little moment where you just go, "ah. right. okay. that's what i'm doing here." it's the reason for, and the zenith of, all the best friendships. i've made a lot of those really impossibly great friendships lately, and i'm sort of bewildered as to how i got here. bewildered, but also grateful. it's a good one to be in, this place.
i don't mean to sound supercilious here at all, and i hope i don't sound too sentimental (impossible not to be at least slightly sentimental, when talking about compassion and love, but i am too much of a hopeless sap to be bothered by this). i don't mean to imply a universal "you" either. yeah, this is one of those posts: by "you," i mean "me." i just...had this thought, about the difference between empathy and compassion, and i wanted to get it down, see if anyone else thinks i'm making any sense or if i am just talking out my ass.