I came across a dictionary definition of compassion the other day that suggested that a synonym for compassion is pity. I think the two are very different.
Pity is merely feeling sorry for someone else. It exhibits a concern for another’s suffering, but lone, it doesn’t move us to action.
Compassion combines a concern for another’s suffering with an aspiration to see that suffering relieved.
In his book Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan provides a definition of compassion given by Tibetan Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa defines compassion as having three components:
1. A cognitive component: “I understand you.”
2. An affective component: “I feel for you.”
3. A motivational component: “I want to help you.”
I think that is a good definition of what we seek to develop as spiritual people. Not merely a pity that means we feel bad that another is suffering, but a deep desire to do something to alleviate their suffering.