- Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara
Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.
These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.
As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.
Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?
I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.
My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.
Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.
Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.
Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.
That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.
Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.
We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön
And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.