Thursday, February 26, 2015

Compassion: What It's Not

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To piggyback off my last post about creating a culture of charity in our schools by teaching compassion and respect for our fellow man, perhaps we need to consider if and how compassion can be taught.

Sometimes the best way to comprehend a term or idea is to identify what is it not.  I find myself doing this all the time in ESL class.  As I teach my English learners new words and phrases, I also illustrate and explain the antonyms so that they gain a richer understanding and learn them in context. Just like a rubric describes the expectations of a final product, it also clearly illustrates the levels of quality from excellent to poor so we understand what it is and what it isn't. Back when I was a business education teacher, I gave both good and bad examples of a finished project, so students were clear on what they should avoid doing. It also saved me from having to explain to a young person that what they thought was really cool was actually, well, tacky.

So what is compassion not? According to the antonym that best helps define compassion is "indifference".Just as I teach definitions by providing synonyms and antonyms, I think we need to learn what we need not to do, in order to be compassionate human beings.  It's pretty clear that animosity, ill will, cruelty, meanness and hatred are all polar opposites of compassion, but one might perceive indifference as rather neutral.  That one word has made me rethink compassion altogether.  I consider myself a pretty loving and caring person, but there are so many times when I have turned a blind eye and/or a deaf ear to someone in need because I'm busy fulfilling my essential duties. How often have I missed an opportunity to stop and lend a listening ear to someone who's having a miserable day simply because I'm focused on my planned activities or just don't think I have the time.

So, can compassion be taught? Well, I think so, but what we must learn is what it is not. We can't be compassionate if we are disconnected and disengaged from our surroundings. By teaching our young people (and ourselves) to slow down and not be indifferent, we are teaching compassion and it is then that we will make a difference in our world.


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