Compassion is an Act of the Imagination

Compassion is natural. But sometimes it calls for a little imagination, and we should stay informed so we can use it wisely.

Compassion means “to suffer together.

But I wouldn’t say it about someone I went through an ordeal with. I wouldn’t say, “I was in compassion with my friend Nancy when we were both stranded in the middle of the desert for a week.”

Sure, in that case Nancy and I would have suffered together. But that’s not when I feel compassion.

I feel compassion when I learn of someone’s else’s suffering, although I was not actually with them, and had no part in the ordeal.


Compassion is an important part of being human.

Lack of compassion for another can indicate any number of mental health disorders, from sociopathic personality disorder to narcissistic disorder, and even psychopathy. (The hyperlinks in this paragraph take you to a few pyschology articles on empathy. I could get into how compassion and empathy aren’t exactly the same things, but that would be mostly semantics. Basically, compassion motivates us to help others, while empathy just means we feel with them. The Psychology Today articles on empathy are still relevant.)

The ability to feel compassion for another means your heart is more open to connecting with other human beings. You care about what someone other than yourself feels, fears, and desires. Sometimes you feel it for animals, too. Feeling compassion causes your body to release oxytocin, the famous “bonding hormone” that women release after giving birth, and that we experience during sex, affection, and other warm fuzzy things.

Compassionate people have been found to be happier, have higher self esteem, be healthier, and to be better partners, parents, and friends. They’re less lonely, and less pessimistic than uncompassionate people.


We evolved to be a compassionate species.

Charles Darwin noted that groups of monkeys who looked out for one another tended to last longer than those groups who didn’t—who left members of their community to terrible fates or abandoned them to suffering. Noting this, and noting that human parents must provide direct, immediate care and support for their children for an extremely long time compared to other species, Darwin wrote that “Sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

Yes, there’s personal investment in caring for our children and members of our family, but compassion compels us to view everyone in “the tribe” as important. We have evolved to care for one another. We’re designed for it. As a species and as a society, we flourish when we care for one another.

So compassion is more than just suffering with others. It makes us want to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is natural. It’s often an immediate reaction. We hear about a friend getting his thumb slammed in a car door, and we cringe. We ask if he went to the hospital, and whether he broke his thumb. Is he on Codeine or something? Can we do anything to help?

We can easily imagine how much that must hurt.


In some cases, compassion requires a bigger act of imagination.

What about when we hear about people who have experienced trauma or struggles outside the realm of common, everyday experiences—like a veteran with PTSD who can’t get adequate care? Or a woman whose husband has died? Or a family in extreme poverty? Or a girl who is charmed by a pimp that calls her his girlfriend, but ends up selling her for sex and keeping her in line with threats and coercion?

Struggles outside our common frame of reference are a little harder to imagine. All those things sound terrible, yes . . . but actually feeling compassion in such cases might not come as immediately as feeling it for the friend who got slammed his thumb in a car door. This is when we actively have to use our imaginations. We must be willing to listen, look deeper, and feel things we’ve never felt. We have to be willing to lay down our judgments and egos, and to set aside our personal agendas, in order to really feel where another person is coming from.

And we’re all busy. We don’t always have time to sit there, contemplate what it might be like to be sold to a stranger for sex, and feel the sufferings of another.


Storytellers can play a big role here.

A good storyteller can get you to feel the emotions of someone going through such trauma, and inspire the compassion that makes you want to help. You know those commercials with the wide-eyed starved children and abused animals? That’s storytelling trying to arouse your compassion.

But that’s how it’s used in ads for charities. Storytellers are doing the same thing when they get you to care about a main character in a book or movie. They take you through the character’s experience, so you can easily imagine what he or she feels, and then you understand their fear and their desire. You want what the character wants. If you don’t want something for the character, the storyteller has failed at their job.

So stories inspire imagination, which can inspire great leaps of compassion for those of us suffering in extreme circumstances.


BUT. Imagination is a powerful tool.

It has to be used responsibly. If a storyteller gets us to feel compassion under a false premise, then we’re going on crusades based on poor judgment. We’re trying to save members of the tribe who are actually just doing their own thing and are perfectly fine without our help.

For example: We see a sex worker—a grown woman who calls herself an escort and doesn’t work under the thumb of a pimp. She’s indie. But we’ve heard stories about girls brainwashed by pimps, and forced to sell themselves against their will—abused, beaten, and threatened until they do as they’re told. We can’t imagine any woman selling her body willingly. No little girl wants to be a whore, right? So we imagine this indie escort must be under some kind of duress. Maybe poverty forced her into the situation. Maybe it was desperation, or lack of self respect, or a response to a lifetime of abuse.

Suddenly, we imagine we have to save this woman.

But we don’t know anything about her. Maybe she just really likes sex and enjoys making a living at it.


I want to be a compassionate person.

I want to imagine the suffering of others and have compassion for them. I want to be one of those moved to help my fellow human beings out of abuse, poverty, and slavery. I want to be one of those who moves the species forward and protects the tribe.

But I also want to be educated about it so I’m not imagining suffering where there is none, and going on self-righteous crusades.

How do you know where there really is suffering, and where it’s exaggerated? Do research, try to put your self-righteousness on the shelf, and use your best judgment. Use your emotions intelligently.


L. Marrick is an author, ghostwriter, and suitcase entrepreneur—which is a hipster way of saying she travels and works from her laptop. Her blog, SomewhatMoralProject, is where she writes about sex work, trafficking, freedom, and slavery. Her best-selling memoir, “Working Girl: 132 Somewhat Moral Values I Learned from a Sex Worker,” tells about when she answered a shady classified ad and wound up working as a sex worker’s personal assistant.

© L. Marrick 2014. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.

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