What Is the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?

By Kristina Hulvershorn

A question that never fails to puzzle students is, “What is the difference between empathy and compassion?” Most of us are familiar with the notion that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but compassion seems to be a trickier word to define. I have come to believe that compassion matters most when it is used as an action word.

So, to explain the concept of compassion to my students, I start by asking, “What if your little brother (or cousin, friend, etc.) were stuck under the bed? If you walked by and said, ‘that has happened to me before…you must feel scared’ then went about your business, you might be displaying empathy, but little else. That feeling, though kind, didn’t do anything to help your brother. If, however, you notice him stuck under the bed, realize that he must be scared and hurt and try to help him get out, you have now displayed compassion. Compassion, I explain, is ‘an awareness of another’s’ suffering and a willingness to help address it.’

This concept, taken into the realm of humane education, has tremendous implications.  I, personally, want to live in a world where our beliefs are tied to meaningful action. I want to know that if I am in trouble, someone will not only feel my pain but act to help alleviate it.

One of our activities at ‘be the change’ asks participants to construct their own circle of compassion. In order to include an entity (which can be anything from migrant farm workers to dolphins to family members) in your circle of compassion, you must honestly weigh the question, “if this ____________ were in harm’s way, would I help him/her?”

I often push participants to really think critically about this one because frequently we are doing harm without meaning to. If we, for example, regularly purchase clothing from a company that uses sweatshops, we are casting a vote in favor of keeping sweatshops in business.  Often participants say things like, “I thought I had compassion for this group but realized that if I’m not doing something to help, I actually don’t. I might even be harming them.”  This can be a difficult realization, but an important one as we work to create opportunities for people to do good, to help, and to be part of positive change.

The activity we offer at ‘be the change’ to take people through this exercise is called “Circles of Compassion” and we use recycled photos from magazines to make magnetic pieces to allow people to fill their metaphorical circle. We love seeing our students come to the realization that their circle of compassion always has the opportunity to grow to include more people, animals and places.

Here is an example of two circles of compassion constructed by recent visitors to ‘be the change.’ These sparked some great thought and discussion!

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