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"Our human compassion binds us the one to the other—not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future."

– Nelson Mandela

What is compassion?

Compassion is the expression of care and concern for another person or group of people.  Compassion can come in many forms. A few examples include: a kind word, a gift, a smile, a show of concern, and depending on the context, something as  simple as not letting someone feel alone.  The key to compassion is the ability to recognize when it is appropriate. Though this point is debatable, compassion is probably not something that should be issued carte blanche. For this reason empathy is a valuable intellectual skill that can supplement our work as we recognize instances calling for compassion.

Empathy is the ability to see things from someone else’s emotional perspective, "to get in their shoes." In order to have an empathic understanding of a given situation, a person must foster a certain degree of intra and interpersonal awareness. As this is accomplished, a person develops a form of emotional understanding with others. It is through this emotional understanding that we can recognize the right time for compassion. The question we need to answer is, when is compassion called for? Empathy can be what answers this question. Understood in this way, we can think of empathy as a kind of mental awareness of others, and compassion is the proper behavioral product of that awareness.   

Why is it necessary?

Emotions are a pervasive part of human life. The idea that emotions are to be discounted in favor of "reason" has weathered away. Emotions, like cognition, provide an invaluable source of information about our own states of well-being and those of others. Empathy is how a person can take their own unique perspective and strive to understand the affections of others.

Furthermore, being a good student requires the ability to affectively engage with others. When this is done properly a student can read a person’s level of comfort with a project, engage in debate without being insulting, and help others learn by being patient with his or her struggles. College is hard. This often means stress runs high and emotions run hot. Being sensitive to the emotional regards of others creates more opportunities for learning and allows a person to navigate emotionally-tumultuous waters with greater success.

But, understanding the plight of others is not enough. People like action. They like behavior. For example, if your roommate is upset because he/she did poorly on a test and comes to you to discuss the matter, it does not do your roommate much good if you just sit across the room and "understand." You need to show your roommate that you care, that you have compassion for what he or she is going through. Again, you can do this in many ways, maybe you share a story about your own academic struggles and how you overcame them; or maybe you give them a pat on the back or a hug and let him or her know it will be okay--that you will help them, and that you are there for them. These are the kinds of things that allow you to flourish with others.

Sure, you can possibly make good grades in college without properly engaging with others, but you will never thrive. Additionally, you will never come close to thriving if you are self-absorbed. Learning most often comes to us from the world outside. This includes the perspectives and experiences of others. If you do not show the right kind of care for others, you will deprive yourself of an essential learning opportunity.