How are you today? This week I shared a meal with another cancer survivor. We ended up talking about how we try to carefully gauge when, how, and what we share to avoid becoming a conversation stopper or the object of pity. But not sharing our pain can lead to feelings of ‘self pity’ and isolation. On the other hand, the sharing of our stories can also make us feel worse or even compelled to comfort the other person, in particular when sharing our pain triggers negative judgment (such as ridicule, inferiority, failure, or pity).
The bad press received by pity concerns both what pity lacks, namely, actual assistance, and what it implies, namely, a feeling of superiority and satisfaction with our own position. Source.
And this brings us to compassion. Pity and compassion are two reactions (to seeing someone suffer) that overlap and are on opposite ends of a spectrum that also includes sympathy and empathy. I like the following graphic, which visualizes the relationship between these 4 terms:
These different terms correlate with different perspectives on life that one may have been born with and/or acquired over time.
Someone who has compassion senses a cancer survivor’s suffering and has an active desire (and ability !) to:
- Allow one “to just be” (which may take a survivor already quite a bit of energy/effort!),
- (Often silently) provide company (while respecting boundaries),
- Universalize the situation (because life is not fair for many),
- Create temporary distractions from problems (with e.g. silly activities),
- Allow one to feel less of a nuisance,
- Take on the challenging task of knowing when and how to help, since a cancer survivor may not always need instant help or a solution. And may even (stubbornly!) prefer to first try to sort things out on their own (perhaps needing you as a listener or a sounding board),
- Jump in if you see HELP signals, e.g. trouble taking care of oneself, dysfunction in their family or society, posing a danger to self/other,
- Be comfortable with the unsatisfied desire to help. In particular, if the survivor is not (just yet) open to accepting help (you can bring water, but cannot force one to drink), or if there is no clear solution at this point in time.
Compassion is one of the main drivers of altruism, which in its turn can facilitate well-being. Altruism can be a noble (or even self-motivated) initiative to alleviate suffering, but helping others can also be a defense mechanism in which one distracts themselves from their own thoughts/feelings. The helper needs to also care for him/herself to minimize risk for caregiver burnout.
Compassion for me translates into a few key words and noble goals that we all should aim for: honesty, unconditional love, genuine care, and passionate generosity. But please remember that you are only human – it’s the reaction to and recovery from our unavoidable mistakes and failures that count and allow us to grow!
Please…find below a few things for education and entertainment!
Learn and Think:
Its cucumber time, or also a slow-medical news-season. Give your brain a rest!
Live and Feel:
- Enjoy this video of one of the few remaining herds of wild horses – the Chincoteague ponies and Assateague’s wold horses!
- Visible Ink offers Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer patients to express themselves in writing with the individual support of an experienced writing mentor. Their initiative has been described in the NYT. Journaling may be one way in which one can write their thoughts and feelings away to facilitate healing!
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