Empathy Vs. Compassion Essay

1304 words - 5 pages

Often when using the words of empathy and compassion, many people envision them as having similar meaning. While they may share similar circumstances, they are actually quite different. Empathy is more of an emotional response with an understanding of a person’s particular situation; whereas compassion is an emotion that arouses an active response to alleviate a distressful situation. Nevertheless, these dissimilar expressions are paramount in the way people respond to the individual needs of others and how they reach out to others in their local communities. Barbara Lazear Ascher’s essay “On Compassion” not only creatively offers a very detailed description of the day in the life in New York City, but effectively draws a picture of a community’s response to the homeless while at the same time questioning the very motives that propel certain acts of charity.
Before deciphering what motivates people to help one another, it is vital for one to understand the significant differences between empathy and compassion so that one may draw inferences about their relationship. Firstly, empathy is more of an emotional response to a person’s situation. It is usually evoked by distressing circumstances. One may imagine himself in a similar situation developing in his mind the same emotions as the person he is feeling empathy for. Although he may feel the same emotion, he does not feel compelled to take action to alleviate the pain or suffering for the person he is feeling empathy for. Compassion, on the other hand, is an emotion that takes action. In other words, a person full of compassion is willing to provide another individual with comfort and relief to secure a positive outcome. It is apparent that while empathy and compassion have their differences, they are connected in the sense that they both evoke an emotional response.
Empathy is an innate trait that all humans have and it is the one that we most readily feel, while compassion is a feeling that must be acquired. Ascher astutely points out that “empathy is the mother of compassion” (par.13). In this noteworthy parallel, Ascher compares empathy to a nurturing mother and compassion to the fruit of her labor. Like a mother who has an inherent instinct to protect and teach her young, so too does one have an innate understanding and sensitivity to the feelings and experiences of another, and it is only from these life experiences that the birth of a new awareness is brought forth in the form of compassion. Similar to a mother’s tutelage, Ascher describes compassion as a “learned” behavior that allows one to consciously act upon the distress of others by actively alleviating it. According to Ascher, “Compassion is not a character trait like a sunny disposition. It must be learned, and it is learned by having adversity at our window…” (par.13). In other words, true compassion can only be learned when one is faced with it every day of ones life and that once it becomes...

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