Developing and Practicing Compassion

students at class meeting As a classicist, I can’t help but think of the origins of words. An interesting pair of words is compassion and sympathy. Etymologically, they are, in essence, the same word, with compassion coming from the Latin, and sympathy from the Greek. The “-pass-“ and “-path-” are linguistically connected, and can mean many things, but “suffer, experience, or endure” will suffice for my purposes here. “Com-“ and “sym-“ are prefixes that mean “with, or together with.” So compassion, or sympathy, is the act of enduring or suffering together with someone else. It is not simply an effort to be nice.

Strong leaders must learn and cultivate compassion; without it, they can have no real understanding of who they’re leading or why. If our Dana Hall students are going to be successful leaders, they need to develop a strong sense of compassion. Although there is a school of thought that believes that compassion is something one inherently has or feels, in fact, the ability to imagine what someone else is experiencing and to be beside her in it, is a skill that can be learned. Compassion for family and friends or people who are familiar to us is natural enough that it may feel almost inherent, but compassion for those we don’t know or who are very different from us or who, in extreme cases, have wronged us, takes extraordinary imagination and selflessness. That is why we are filled with awe when, for example, the family of a crime victim shows compassion toward the perpetrator.

Although in the course of our daily lives we are not usually called to that extreme, we are challenged to develop and practice compassion in moments when it does not come naturally. If we hear of a classmate or co-worker doing something we do not understand or forgetting about an event or a task, it’s easier to dismiss it as “stupid” than to think about that person’s life and motivations. I’d like to be clear here: having compassion for someone does not mean you agree with or condone her actions; it means that you have made your best effort to see things from her point of view, and you’ve tried to imagine that you are she. If we all make this effort, we will make our communities stronger.

A leader makes an effort to imagine the experience of others from their perspectives in order to understand how best to lead; without this skill, she is acting in a vacuum and will be ineffective. Dana Hall educators and parents, therefore, must continue to help our girls to understand that, while being nice is a good thing, the importance of genuine compassion, with all its complication and difficulty, is far greater.

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About Katherine Bradley

Katherine Bradley is the Head of School at Dana Hall. She joined the School in 2016.

2 Replies to “Developing and Practicing Compassion”

  1. Katherine,
    The practice of cultivating compassion is a critically important component to education. Thank you for highlighting both the meaning of the word and its significance to our learning community!

  2. Katherine, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Understanding the true meaning of these words helps us better appreciate how a leader who shows real compassion is indeed a strong, courageous one.

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