Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

Making Compassion Simple and Making it Work

This piece has been written by University Chaplain, Revd Dr. Harriet Harris and Dr Marti Balaam, from Medical School and Nursing Studies.

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Photo by Hugh Rawson

With the pressures of the Covid19 pandemic, we have become acutely aware of the need for compassion to keep us going as a society: looking after the most vulnerable; supporting key workers who are keeping people alive, or helping them to die well, and who are sustaining us all in our daily needs; and providing for those whose lives or livelihoods are on the line, whilst recognising that this could be any of us. We are comforted and cheered by acts of compassion and kindness in our neighbourhoods and homes. More than ever at this time, we also need self-compassion to help keep us going with equilibrium, sensitivity, and even joy, in the face of grave difficulties and sadness.

So, we want to steady and ready ourselves with compassion, build up reserves of it, give it to others and to our own selves. For this we want to understand what compassion is and how it helps us.

Compassion is attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others, with the wisdom and steps taken to relieve it. Compassion calls forth action, but with the wisdom to know when, how and what is required. Being compassionate can be as simple as: knowing when to be still; knowing when a listening ear is what’s needed (rather than agitated efforts to ‘help’); knowing when you need to stop and eat or run a luxurious-feeling bath; and knowing whether, when and how to enable relatives to visit sick or dying patients.

What compassion does not do is demand too much of our time, or run us into the ground. People sometimes say that they do not have time to be compassionate, or they worry that they will suffer ‘compassion fatigue’. However, studies with medical doctors and nurses show that it takes less than a minute to develop a compassionate rapport with somebody. The seconds spent here may save hours in the future, of patients feeling unheard and continuing to come back for more. Fatigue, we believe, is an outcome of unboundaried empathy, and also signals a need to feel more supported (bold self-care, as well as feeling supported by colleagues and line-managers). One very important element of self-compassion, the pioneering researcher Kristen Neff writes, is a common shared humanity, a sense that we all struggle, and, as we are recognising during this Pandemic, “We are in all this together”.

Empathy can lead us to feel overwhelmed, whereas compassion makes us feel better, so it is really important to distinguish compassion from empathy, rather than conflate the two. Empathy– where we take in the feelings of another – is a great teacher. It gives us insight into how another is feeling, or attunes us to our own feelings. However, we do not want to get stuck in the feelings of others, or of our own selves, when these feelings are causing suffering. Instead we want the wisdom and knowledge for how to respond to the suffering. Compassion is active, and so moves us on; it is wise, and so protects us from hasty, undiscerning attempts to relieve suffering; and it is kind, and so kindles the connections between us and increases our joy or sense of wellness, even in the most difficult and saddest of circumstances.

For Health and care workers at the moment, compassion is so crucial. Before the Covid19 pandemic, we were already seeing a steep rise in stress and burnout amongst healthcare professionals. Compassion has the potential to heal and prevent stress and burnout, and to alter the working conditions that can compound stress. Some doctors and nurses are reporting appreciating the greater equality and kindness that has come onto the wards and care environments, given the emergency conditions of the pandemic, and the greater awareness amongst healthcare professionals of the need to look out for the vulnerabilities within themselves and their colleagues.

We can see all the more clearly now the value of underpinning curricula for medical and health professionals with compassion: teaching the efficacy of compassion in preventing stress and burnout amongst clinicians, improving recovery rates amongst patients, and enhancing good relations between colleagues, patients and families. As we move forward past the immediate crisis, we must prepare our students to respond to whatever comes their way with a compassionate and attuned response. They face an uncertain future, that we all wish to be navigated by a kinder global community.

For all of us now, it is a time to recharge our batteries and don our own oxygen masks so that we can support ourselves and each other. Compassion replenishes rather than depletes our reserves. It enables us to move beyond empathy into action, equips us to look after ourselves and to improve our work culture, and cheers us up through small acts of kindness that mean so very much: a smile, sending or receiving a note, asking after a person’s family, putting rainbow drawings in our windows. When we act compassionately to others, we also fill up our own well. As a prayer of St Francis puts it: “It is in giving that we receive.”