In the thesaurus, one of the most highly recommended synonyms for compassion is sorrow. All the other listings in this highly recommended category depict ways we treat our fellow humans. Even though sorrow isn’t really a synonym for compassion, I’m glad they included it. To be compassionate, one is often opened up to sorrowful feelings. We want to be compassionate, but it’s difficult to continue that compassion knowing the sadness it can lead to.
One common way to balance being compassionate with becoming mired in sorrow seems to be fleeting moments of compassion. We see something on the news or in an online article that pulls at our hearts, then we go about our days. How do we determine when this is understandable coping, and when this ignores the plight of our fellow human beings? Students in NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab conducted a study examining the fleeting nature of our compassion.
Their study looks particularly at Google Trends data and Twitter data. Their report explains the importance of using online data to analyze human response: “Social media data provide new insight into how the world watches a humanitarian disaster unfold in real time. In particular, the temporal granularity and networked structure of Twitter data provide key insights into what events grab global attention, how perceptions of refugees shift over time, and whose narratives about refugees gain traction” (NYU).
What the NYU study found in online data can be seen on a day to day basis as well. I visited the Jefferson Camp in Darmstadt, a former U.S. military base that currently houses refugees. Social workers organizing the camp said there were lots of volunteers for the first six months; now it’s extremely difficult to find willing volunteers. Of course for all of the scenarios when we feel compassion with little or no action, there are times when compassion is at its best. This weekend, we visited a small town in Germany that renovated a hotel into a residence for refugees. When they needed winter clothes for many of their approximately 700 residents, so many clothes were dropped off they had to turn people away.
Our minds behave fleetingly, and that’s not our fault. We do, however, need to work to act on our compassion. Instead of feeling sorry for someone, think about how you can help them. It doesn’t need to be direct to make a difference, maybe it helps the group of people. Overall, the important idea is to stop feeling sorry and start doing something about it.