Compassion – inherent to our essential character?

I believe with all my heart that most people are mostly good, when it comes down to it.

Whilst many of our actions can be interpreted as self-serving (and indeed, some of them will be), I have confidence that humans on the whole are a caring sort of bunch, who frequently act on their altruistic natures to make the world a better place.


Of course there will be exceptions to the rule whose actions are so heinous they eclipse many of the missed moments of small good things done by normal people, everyday. We’re good at focusing on those; whether it’s whatever outrageous saying has dropped lately from the lips of Donald Trump, or the appalling unkindness of the Olympic crowd who booed silver medallist Renaud Lavillenie, or whichever kind of small-town awful gets splashed across the headlines of the world for enough seconds for us to draw in our breath and shake our heads with disgust.

We share memes, opinions, articles, fold our arms, stake our ground, and pin our colours to the mast of disapproval, and when everyone’s looking down their noses and ‘tsk tsk’ing about whichever badness has just happened, it’s easy to forget the good things.

Bet you I can think of at least ten, RightNow, off the top of my head – examples of small good, world-embettering things I’m thankful for:

A friend who raises guide-dog puppies prior to the beginning of their training * A colleague who took my afternoon in clinic so I could rest my poorly mouth from talking to patients * My family pulling together every time one of us needs something helped with or sorted * A friend who often goes to Sri Lanka to see her family, and takes lots of no-longer-needed things for them to distribute and enjoy * People who share pictures and words intended to uplift those who encounter them * The care-home my Grandad’s been moved into, being one with nice staff and no bad smells, where people seem happy * Parents (and grandparents) giving up time to give their kids wonderful summer experiences * Words written with love to specific people, to people at large, to anyone who needs them * Letters written and glitterbombs and parcels sent between friends, carrying love across the miles * Small, safe spaces, with dear friends, where we can both whine and whinge and put each other back together after a hard day * Anyone who adopts another being and cherishes and nurtures them * Witnessing people cheering each other on in their successes, and in their lacks thereof * Good causes being promoted and funds raised to help both individuals and organisations…

In each of these situations, compassion seems so key to the good thing happening at all. In each of these situations, I think it could easily be argued back to the underlying point that they exist because people CARE.

Maybe people get something back, though – maybe a trade of kindnesses shouldn’t really count. Maybe the parents and grandparents get their reward in spending time in the delightful company of youngsters (who am I trying to kid?!). Maybe the puppy trainer just has a wonderful time looking after cute doggies (no, I reckon that’s hard work, too). Maybe venting and bitching and acknowledging one another’s griefs and frustrations doesn’t really count as ’embettering’, but the trust and security and encouragement and building-up that’s part of it…oh maybe it does? Maybe the adopting fills a hole in the life and the heart and…nope, it’s just good.

Maybe so often, the good things which we make happen every day – even if we seem to be beneficiaries in the act – are still a result of care and compassion.

As to the other good things people do – the giving away of items to enable others to have them, or the fund-raising on behalf of good causes – perhaps they’re self-seeking and glory-hunting, advertising that they’re jumping on the bandwagon of Being A Good Person, with an implicit ‘Shouldn’t You Try To Be, Too?’ but I just don’t buy it.

Yes, sometimes we act in misguided fashions, or to alleviate some kind of guilt or hurt of our own. Sometimes our giving is tainted by the desire to unburden, rather than to really help someone (and that we can do both is a delightful side-effect of the underlying reason). Sometimes our participation truly is just token, to make ourselves feel better, or for show.

It’s all a tangle and a bit of an impenetrable mixture, with the each element inseparable from the others, as so many aspects depend on things that vary, BUT here’s the thing, we’re still doing it. And it’s still making a difference, whatever it is. Whatever the intent or attitude behind the gift, it’s still given. Whatever the justification for helping, help has still been done. And no-one ever said giving/participation/helping *has* to be sacrificial. Sometimes it can be incidental, accidental, tangential or oblique, stemming from something else entirely. It’s still something which does good. Still something which most of the time comes mostly from a point of care, of compassion.

I rather think if we were all selfish bastards at heart, lacking compassion and inherently geared to be mean and cruel, our society truly would be fractured beyond repair. That it isn’t, and through the ages hasn’t been in spite of what seems the best (or, worst) efforts of a number of highly influential selfish, uncompassionate bastards, seems to me to speak volumes to the huge, underlying impact of those who live in ways which do good for others, as well as for themselves.

On the whole, we humans, we people, we the Village; us, you, me…are beings who intrinsically, incessantly, instinctively pay heed to the quandries and needs of others, feel pangs of empathy within us, and the accompanying desire to somehow improve things. I believe we’re innately compassionate, and whilst we can choose to ignore the tugs on the heartstrings, or the chance to make a difference, or the opportunity to simply express that we are human too, and recognise that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ (or similar), and pitch in to help…observation and research suggest that on the whole, we don’t choose to ignore, to overlook, and to keep others quashed.

I’d say most of us, most of the time, are pretty good at feeling and expressing compassion. We build the Village. We look after one another. We stand up for goodness and justice and mercy. And if that doesn’t give hope in hard times, and inspire thankfulness that each of us, in our small ways, can make a big difference, I don’t know what will!



What do YOU think? Are we inherently compassionate? Do you think we can ever be purely altruistic? Does it matter as long as people get help when they need it? Share your thoughts…


This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Inherent Compassion.

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37 thoughts on “Compassion – inherent to our essential character?

  1. Is everybody compassionate? Is compssion learned or innate? I am still grappling with this. Humans can be so awful to each other. Not just those with a high profiles but kids at school, the friends of your kids at school, drivers in traffic, the office.
    I’ve heard two stories recently which made me livid.
    We had a local aged care nurse who was killed when a young driver very high on marujuana, hit her car. While she was lying there dying a man and woman stole her handbag and withdrew money from her banks accounts. What kind of humans are they?
    Another really awful story crossed my path. Last year, some girls from a prestigious Sydney Girls’ Private school were expelled due to bullying. The parents of one of these girls took the school to court and her older sister, who was Head Prefect, spoke out against how the school dealt with her sister. Recently, the truth of the matter came to light when the victim of the bullying won gold at the Paralympics. In a terrible ordeal which reminds me of acts from “The Lord of the Flies”, these girls “allegedly” stripped this girl naked at a school camp and put her in a cupboard. I heard her interviewed at the games before I knew all of this, and was struck by how sweet and lovely she was. She’s only 14 and she was just so lovely and I am so angry about all of this. We try and see the good in people, and then you get shocking stories like this.
    However, there are two sides and sometimes the bully is being bullied, which doesn’t justify or condone their behaviour but it does at least raise an eyebrow of compassion.
    My son was being bullied at school and a very nasty word was sent to him by an anonymous txt on his phone. The school quickly worked out who is was and brought the boy in “for a chat”. The boy was in tears, apologetic and crumpled. He has been bullied and it turns out that he’s actually my son’s friend.
    I shared this situation because it shows just how complex these issues are. It’s hard to really to stand on your laurels and not feel that your platform could disappear any second.
    Anyway, it’s great to catch up for our monthly link up and dose up on compassion. Being involved in this group, has made me much more outspoken out in the real world and I’ve realised that I’ve spoken out unconsciously knowing that I have all these people backing me up. It’s been so empowering.
    Hope things are going well with you, Lizzie!
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh I love that the linkup is making you more outspoken in real life – that’s an awesome effect of being part of it.

      I think there are probably always going to be awful stories which show the worst side of human nature. Look at hangings and the gladiators and the things which happened in apartheid…I mean…some of it beggars belief.

      I still think that on the whole, as a species, most of us are mostly alright 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I can say it any better than you have. I believe that most people are mostly good most of the time. I do. No one is perfect – we weren’t designed that way. But I think most of us do try to be good and to champion good. Like you said, if evil were really the winner, we’d have all been destroyed long ago. I have faith that good will always triumph, no matter how dire the circumstances seem. I don’t disagree with Liv – it’s scary out there right now. But it’s always been so – the scary stuff has just been different scary stuff. Beth and Kristi make fair points, too. There is always a little bit of self-preservation at work, but I kind of wonder if there doesn’t have to be. I can think of some very specific examples, personal ones even, where sometimes that just has to be the way. Not because I want to be cruel or incompassionate (uncompassionate? anti-compassionate? non-compassionate? whatever), but because I couldn’t allow myself to continue to take what the other side was dishing out. A better conversation elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s a different kettle of fish though, in a way. Enabling or condoning or allowing (what is tantamount to) abuse, is not really a compassionate act. I don’t think that encouraging people’s bad behaviour by continuing to engage with it is necessarily helpful to anyone. With kids, I was always taught to try to redirect their negative behaviours into a specific positive behaviour which I could then praise them for (the underlying principle being that ‘acting out’ was in order to get attention or meet some unfulfilled need) and on the whole, it worked. Rewarding poor behaviour with attention just encouraged it because it proved it got a result. I’m sure the same must apply to us all as we grow up.

      It really is scary out there right now, and I think that even though the human nature which underlies all the nastiness has been had and played out before in myriad occasions, there hasn’t been the technology to make it quite so deadly or pervasive or widely-threatening as it is now.

      But I still have faith in good, and in most people, most of the time 🙂


    • Heheh I kill mosquitoes and wasps. With vicious pleasure. I rescue spiders though, and daddy longlegses.

      The term care home is so often a misnomer, which is very upsetting, but it’s a nice try.

      ‘Nursing’ is a nice word, too, when you think about what it means to a breastfeeding mother.


  3. Some very interesting thoughts here Lizzi. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, not just because it is our theme, but also because I’ve been reading “Mindful Compassion” by Paul Gilbert and Choden. A sentence that struck me in your post was: “I rather think if we were all selfish bastards at heart, lacking compassion and inherently geared to be mean and cruel, our society truly would be fractured beyond repair.” This is one of the points Gilbert and Choden make. That we have survived more or less peacefully for centuries, and that we have developed from watching people murder each other as sport in Roman times to how we are today reflects the innate (and developing) compassion within us.

    And now, I’m going to say something that might seem controversial, but it’s something I’ve also been thinking about a lot lately and touch upon in my own post. (I’ll probably expand more on it in another soon.) I think we need to get away from seeing compassion as “good.” While it is satisfying in the short term to think this way, it’s stressful in the longterm. (You touched on this yourself in the long conversation we had last year, when you spoke about “deserving.” I totally agree with what you said, and the post you wrote about it.)

    The problem with seeing compassion as good is mainly that It’s then so easy for us to see those who lack compassion as “bad.” So we have children described as “born bad.” If compassion is innate (and like you, I think it is) then we need to help those who lack it to find ways to feel and express it. I’m pleased to say that some psychologists are doing just this. There’s a big study going on in Australia, for instance.

    I also think the NVC approach is a useful one in this respect – to see negative emotions and behaviours as indicative of unmet needs. And in that approach compassionate behaviour meets our needs – eg for connection, though compassion is also listed as a basic human need!

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ooooh I like that! I do think compassion is good, but then, I think we’re all inclined to be good (on the whole), and that a lack of (for want of a more apt shorthand) humanity, is as you say, something which indicates a lack somewhere, or is a product of abuse or adversity.

      I read an article somewhere, probably based on the book you mentioned, which said this – that we’re still here, still trying to act caringly towards one another, in spite of the few nasties throughout history, and how that’s a pretty big deal.

      I shall be fascinated to hear what the Australian study discovers.


  4. I think most people want to be kind – or “good” and “do good”. At least initially. I think it waxes and wanes with life and what it throws at you. I think many of us muddle through and still aim to, on balance, “be good”. I also think many of those do think there should be some “karmic balancing” for their efforts and not feeling that can temper efforts. I love your list of “ten things right now!” It’s a nice way of bringing us all back to the “Look, it’s not hard to be kind. Small things you do have impact.”

    Happy to have visited your blog tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awwwh thanks Louise. I’m glad you visited, too. And no, it really DOESN’T need to be a big thing to still make a difference. All the small things really add up.

      I don’t believe in karma, just because so much bad happens to good people, and so much good happens to bad. I think if it were real then there would be FAR more good in the world. I also prefer not to buy into fear-based systems of good-doing, and would rather do things just because I know they’re good, rather than because I fear bad. If that makes sense.

      Our capacity for outreach and output definitely waxes and wanes with what’s going on in our lives, and I think that’s natural. Muddling through is perfectly respectable, and I suspect there’s an element by which we learn good things from the graceful acceptance of compassion extended in our direction when we’re struggling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I want to believe in karma – or maybe it’s more the me of 10 years ago wanted to believe in it – and I like to think I’ve let go of the “tit for tatting” on both the good or the bad while keeping the idea that somehow good really does beget good – and I think I do still believe that – in the way I believe that people who make a concentrated effort to be happy (however they choose to do that and barring issues with actual depression and mental health issues) can become happier and spread that out beyond themselves.

        Now your last line I love – that we learn good things from the graceful acceptance of compassion extended in our direction when we are struggling. Yes! Now there is the power of the individual to truly make a difference in the life of another what that other can see the help offered through the fog of their specific struggle.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I definitely believe that good inspires good, but we all need to be open to receiving and doing good, for that to happen 🙂 I’m often reminded of the metaphor of the lakes, where the stream pours in at one end of the first lake and out at the other, and the lake’s waters are sparkling and full of life. In the second lake, the stream pours in, but not out, and the waters are still, and full of decay.

          We hold more life if we accept and give, good.

          As to individuals…goodness me, we have SO much potential, and I really do think we owe it to ourselves and each other to help where we can. If only we all helped one another, no-one would be left unaided.


  5. I think most people are compassionate by nature but also do not think they have true empathy by nature if one defines having true empathy by being able to TRULY relate. I think it’s easy to confuse empathy with “feeling sorry for” which isn’t the same, if that makes sense. But yes, I do believe people are mostly good and compassionate, if not also very self-absorbed and oblivious which is maybe even a necessity for survival.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think, when there are as many circumstances as there are humans, it would be impossible to have (or expect to have) true empathy for others. ‘Feeling sorry for’ is very different, but both can inspire contribution and helping and support, which is awesome.

      We’re all self-absorbed to an extent. I think that’s natural, too, but how oblivious we are depends on how willing to be open we are, and how much information we’re in possession of.


    • There’s evil alright. A lot of it about, and a lot of people buy into it. We’re all a mixture – even the heartless bastards at Trump rallies are probably kind to their kids. Maybe. I hope. BUT, in the end, I think there’s a lot of good which goes unsung. It just happens, quietly, in small corners, keeping the world largely to rights. Ish.


  6. I love this!!! I completely agree that compassion is an inherent quality of (most) human beings, but this post so eloquently captured the complexity of this question! In my last year of high school, we all had to do a project that involved writing a research paper and participating in the community, and I decided to join an acts of kindness group within my town. My research paper was about the scientific, chemical benefits of altruism for the person who gives (i.e., what happens in our brains and in our bodies when we are compassionate). That added an extra layer of complexity for me — it made me wonder, are we compassionate because we are driven subconsciously by neural activation and chemical releases? Studies have shown that even babies are altruistic, motivated to help another being even when there’s no obvious “gain” for THEM. I was conflicted, troubled by the thought that maybe we are driven to be compassionate because we subconsciously crave the rush of neurotransmitters and hormones that flood our bodies when we are kind.

    But then…then I started attending these group meetings, where a group of amazing people would gather every week with the intention of spreading kindness, of making the world a more beautiful place. I was at least half the age of every person there, and yet they welcomed me with open arms and we made meals for people in need, wrote prayers and words of comfort for families going through difficult times, sent packages to soldiers overseas…and soon I found that I was no longer troubled by my research. Maybe we ARE scientifically hardwired to be compassionate — but if that’s true, what a beautiful thing. We care, we feel, we have empathy and we love, and that is my favorite part of being human.

    Love this, friend – and YOU. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES! YES! YES! And doesn’t it make absolute sense that if we’re designed as social creatures, we ARE hardwired to be compassionate, to care for each other? It makes utter, utter sense to me that our neurotransmitters are stimulated by our acts of kindness, so that in giving, WE receive a gift.

      It’s the same with massage – the reason so, SO many people are good at it, without training, is because as organisms, we’re designed to enjoy being touched, having contact, having our muscles unkinked, by each other. It’s bonding, it’s social, it builds bridges, it makes us feel good, and it makes complete sense that as organisms which respond to it, we’re also (by and large) imbued with the skills to effect that for each other.

      Man! I sometimes just marvel at the complexities and amazingness of our brains.

      I also LOVE that you joined the random acts of kindness group, and that they were so lovely to you, and that you all had such a wonderful community DOING THINGS THAT MATTERED! That’s huge. Like, REALLY huge 😀

      Massive love to you, K, and yes – love is also my favourite part about being human. We were made for relationship 🙂 ❤


      • YES — massage too!! I’m so excited you mentioned that, actually…one of the projects I worked on in college centered around the positive impact of human touch, and I was so amazed to discover just how powerful touch can be. When my brothers and I were born, my mom participated in a research study in which she simply held us, skin-to-skin, and our heartbeats and breathing improved. Other studies found that massaged preemies had lower rates of sepsis, shorter hospital stays, and reduced pain levels…and among the general population, holding someone’s hand while undergoing a stressful procedure greatly reduced the activation of threat-response areas of the brain. This was true even if the person was holding a stranger’s hand, but it was more pronounced when the person held the hand of somebody they loved.

        But even cooler, I think, is that we don’t need science to tell us this…we instinctively seem to know! When we’re in pain (physical or emotional), we seem to reach for another human being. We hug, we hold hands, we crave connection. Like you say, we’re designed to enjoy being touched. 🙂

        Thanks for your thoughts ❤ I love hearing your take on the world! (also — this is completely unrelated, but I love that your website automatically turns two hyphens – – into an em dash — so magical!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • *pretends she even knows what an em dash is for* 😉

          We’re definitely designed for touch, and I love the schools of thought which promote skin-to-skin contact. I’ve read studies which also say that co-sleeping is BRILLIANT for babies, and that their heartbeat, temperature, immunity, and all sorts of other things, is boosted by having their mother nearby/in contact with them. Which again, to me, makes utter sense – they’ve been floating around in the womb with all their systems attuned PRE birth, so why WOULDN’T it work afterwards? I find it fascinating and wonderful to see more and more studies which demonstrate how much we need and BENEFIT from deep emotional and physical connections with other humans.

          LOVE that you’re studying this – SO awesome! What books are you reading? I’d be keen to know and take a peek if I can find them.


  7. I really liked this post, Lizzi! I also believe that most people are inherently good and compassionate, even if sometimes damage the acquire along the way makes it hard for them to show those intentions. You make an excellent point when you say “…we’re still doing it. And it’s still making a difference…” Absolutely. I would guess that at least 90% of the time our actions have at least a tinge of self-motivation in them, because we are after all human, but if that is mixed with an act of compassion that makes a difference to someone else, does it really matter? No! Don’t stop being compassionate just because you fear you can’t do it perfectly. Ever item you listed is awesome. I think of all the times some small act of caring and compassion made a huge different at a difficult moment in my life. The opportunities are endless, it really is one of those “just do it” (and don’t overthink it) things!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think you’ve got a point about overthinking. I’ve overthunk ‘compassionate’ acts, not being sure of my motivations, and paralysed myself into not doing anything at all and then being angry for that. Ridiculous! I think we just have to accept that as humans, we get a kick out of helping, and maybe we’re MEANT to!

      Like this evening for example – there was a pretty bad car smash at a T-junction just as I was cycling home, and literally EVERYONE stopped – motorists, cyclists, pedestrians…everyone…and before the police and ambulance were even there, people were sweeping the debris from the road with brooms from their houses, people were comforting and looking after the drivers, we called the emergency services…people HELPED. It was like a little community suddenly sprung up around it, strangers all bound by this one incident, and…it was NICE to be part of it, and to feel helpy!


  8. Pingback: How Eye Contact Instills Compassion | LITTLE MISS WORDY

  9. Compassion, empathy, kindness, love, encouragement — all these, if we are paying attention, feel good to do, to give, to witness, and to receive. Hate, bitterness, cruelty, indifference, anger, vengelfulness, belittlement, and fear — these do not feel good to do, witness, or be the target of. This all being so, there does seem to be something fundamental in our natures that favors one side and would avoid the other. Is kindness self-serving? Is generosity is some way selfish? Of course they are. They are rewarded by our higher selves with good feelings, with a knowledge of rightness. There is a Zen story:

    The Gates of Paradise

    A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

    “Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

    “I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

    “You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

    Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

    As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”

    At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

    “Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get it. And I do think we’re responsible in a fashion, for the goodness in our own lives, and it’s definitely true that our attitudes shape our existence…to an extent. I still think that when circumstances are beyond our control and just AWFUL, we flounder. And when circumstances are delightful and perfect, we forget so easily that they’re not for everyone.

      Maybe life’s a mixture on purpose – to give us hope and to keep us compassionate.

      Awesome story though. I love it 🙂


  10. I like to think most people are inherently good, too. Right? Don’t you think anti-compassion comes from the environment? Sure there might be some true sociopaths, but “normal” people I think are empathetic and compassionate unless it was beat (literally or figuratively) out of them.

    this reminds me of the Friends episode where Phoebe tried to find a good deed that wasn’t in some way also selfish hehehe

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL! I remember that episode. She didn’t find one, did she?

      I definitely think that on the whole, a lack of compassion comes from nurture (well, lack of), rather than nature. I know there are no absolutes, but…

      Liked by 1 person

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