Difference Between Love And Compassion
March 4, 2013
Yesterday, during my rounds on the geriatrics ward, I chatted with a woman who was being visited by her son. Throughout our conversation, she continually referred to him as her husband. She has dementia, she gets confused. I asked her if she had been told when might the hospital discharge her. Her son replied that it would not be until a suitable nursing home was found. “They asked me if I would take care of her, but I can’t,” he explained, even though I had made no judgement. “I have never had children, you see, nor a wife. I wouldn’t know how to take care of her,” he shrugged.
I sympathized with his dilemma. I am certain he loves his mother because he visits her daily. But might he be lacking in compassion that he cannot adapt himself to taking care of his mother? It got me thinking about the difference between love and compassion. Commonly confused, I know I have often mistook one for the other in my life.
Love is personal, it’s messy. Love is taking a swim in the emotion sludge of the beloved. When the beloved is happy, we are happy. When the beloved feels guilty, betrayed, or grieved, we feel likewise. Parents/spouses/offspring/friends–all these relationships exist because of interdependence. They fulfill our needs and we theirs. Thus love arises from a sense of self.
Where compassion is selfless. It is impersonal because it can exist without any relationship at all. I do it weekly at the homeless shelter. It would be disingenuous to say I love them when they are strangers to me and I to them. Yet I have unreserved compassion for them. The liberating thing about it being impersonal is that it comes without emotional baggage. Compassion does not demand anything in return. That is why I can still feel compassion even when they are unappreciative or even abusive. I would help my worst enemy if his life were endangered. Compassion is unconditional.
Whereas love brings with it expectations of the beloved. We reward or punish behavior, sometimes deliberately, sometimes tacitly. We punish the beloved for traits which we do not approve of. During my youth people used to speak of unconditional love. Back then we accepted it as a universal truth. Now, as I get older, I wonder if it is merely a utopian idea? I mean, if parents had unconditional love, why are some offspring more favored than others? If mothers have unconditional love their sons, then why did some mothers abandon their sons in droves in the early days of the AIDS epidemic? If a husband loves his wife in sickness and in health/ for richer, for poorer, then why do half of all marriages end in divorce? Love is by nature so conditional that I wonder if we really only love the relationship, rather than the person?
Though love and compassion are distinct, I see no reason why the two cannot coexist within the same relationship. This fusion, it seems to me, is the nearest thing there is to unconditional love.
But how does one go about blending love with compassion in relationships? I have spent the entire past week hunched over a sewing machine attempting to do just that. After spending a day mastering the straight stitch, I felt comfortable enough to tailor a kimono for myself. It was made from cut up old shirts and it now proudly sits among our dish rags. However, it and its descendants did set me on course to learn much about sizing, cutting and other tricks of the sewing trade. Tricks that will one day be of benefit to others as well as myself. I have decided to keep adding new skills to my character resume.
Why? Because compassion is a kind of generosity. And, like money, you need to have plenty of it before you can give generously. Practical skills are one way by which you can introduce compassion into your relationships. Practical skills such as carpentry, cooking, and sewing, allow poor folk like us to squander compassion as though Bill Gates. Practical skills afford a son the capacity to take care of his senile mother.
The latest research in neuroscience has discovered that learning new skills changes the very structure of the brain. New brain cells grow, the brain enlarges incrementally. People who learn new skills throughout their lives build up cognitive reserve, so much so that if old age dementia does set in, others don’t even notice it. In other words, continually learning new skills would have made that mother so capable that when her senility did arrive, she would have no need of her son to take care of her.