Stoic compassion sounds like an oxymoron. But what if I told you it’s not?
Don’t say, “Calm down.” Provide calmness.
Ever had someone yell, “Calm down!” at you? Did being yelled at have a calming effect?
Of course not. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if you become too distraught you can intensify that person’s distress.
But maybe you’re not upset with the person in distress. Maybe you’re angry with the perpetrator who did this to them.
Anger creates a desire for revenge, however, and this perpetuates the cycle of suffering. Anger is a roadblock to compassion.
Solutions require clear thinking
How can you not assign blame, though, when someone has suffered a misfortune that didn’t have to happen? That maybe even resulted from someone else’s poor choices?
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, and soil there are no flowers. And Marcus Aurelius says that suffering also is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on.
Writing To Himself, Marcus states that by looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects people, and what to do about it.
Take a step back
Looking at it like you’re watching from a distance can help you see what someone’s pain is made of. Epictetus counseled his students that,
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement he has formed about it.”
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, Stoic compassion means being a support to your fellow traveler. A cool head can help that person gain perspective on the situation, which they’ll need to take effective action.