compassion – born with it, learn it, do dogs have it?

This past week I have been thinking a great deal about compassion. I should also add that I have been put in a position to really give it some deep thought.

I think some people use the word, compassion, as freely as they use a word, like say, happy. It’s become somewhat generic in its use, and bastardized on quite a few levels, to service some individuals own beliefs, even if it’s quite the opposite of compassion.

What is compassion? Well it’s interesting. Many people, religions, and scientific organizations have differing views. But all agree that compassion is a positive trait, the more compassion the better. Compassion is directly linked to love.

There is one definition that popped up in more than one place, so I am going to go with it.

Compassion is the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others. It is regarded as a fundamental part of human love, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism —foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.

Compassion is often regarded as emotional in nature, and there is an aspect of compassion which regards a quantitative dimension, such that individual’s compassion is often given a property of “depth,” “vigour,” or “passion.” The etymology of “compassion” is Latin, meaning “co-suffering.”

In researching the nature, the base level of compassion, I found things even a bit more confusing. Some would have you believe we are either born with compassion, or we are not. It’s that simple. Some of us come into the world a bit more enlightened than others, and have the ability, to feel, for other living beings. Think of Mother Teresa.

But there are Early Developmental Psychologists that have studied children that were neglected by their mothers, abandoned, mistreated or abused (in big ways, not just a spanking), and their findings suggest that these experiences actually lead to sociopathic behavior. This is kind of the opposite of compassion, they lack the ability to feel anything for another living being. So whether they came into the world as compassionate babies or not, their early life experience cancelled all of that out.

And then there was my question, is compassion uniquely human? If humans feel compassion towards each other, can we also feel it towards other living beings, inter-species compassion? Do our dogs feel compassion towards each other, towards us, towards other living beings? There is very little evidence to demonstrate one way or the other. One interesting science article did try to explain the possibility of empathy though, with a yawning experiment. But is science necessary when it comes to feelings, does it need to be proven? I always seem to have more questions than not with things like this. But perhaps the answer is the question?

There is an awesome article written by Connor Wood for the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, Animals and Empathy. Totally worth a read if you are as curious as I am.

A Buddhist website, and Buddhists are up to their elbows in compassion, believe it is uniquely human, other mammals do not share this ability to feel for others.

Like wisdom, compassion is uniquely human quality.

But I would disagree with the Buddhists on this view. Besides living with animals my entire life, and experiencing compassion first hand, there is a thanks owed to YouTube. There are awesome videos of compassion, human, other living beings, and inter-species. Millions of people tune in to watch this love in motion, compassion between various species.

Tarra & Bella, the unlikely friendship between an elephant and a dog. If you are new to this story, please click the link and watch the video. The compassion is palpable, in my opinion.

Then there is Christian the Lion. John and Ace’s compassion for Christian allowed for his freedom. And that Christian … well just watch it! George Adamson who is the ‘old man’ out with the lions in this video, was a hero of mine when I was a child. If you know the story of Elsa the lioness from Born Free, than you know about George and his compassion for everything living.

While I am a compassionate person, I tend to have a deeper sense of compassion for other species. I don’t think this is terribly uncommon, in fact most of my good friends are the same. Whether I was born with compassion, or simply surrounded by compassionate people who influenced my choices , or both, I am simply grateful that I feel so deeply.

Now why have I been put in the position to really think about compassion? It will suffice to say that there are some people acting in the training world, mixing acts of abuse, and pairing it with a word like, compassion. It’s mind twisting, and slightly jaw dropping, at least for me. And the real harm in this, is that it desensitizes us to abuse. Yet it happens. If for example, a husband beat his wife into submission, because he needed to teach her how to behave, and then bought her flowers to tell her he really did love her and only beat her because of this love … well he would go to prison for that. But not in the dog world. It’s unfortunate.

When I’m old and the grass is tall, I want to have memories from the heart. To know that every animal that came to me, lived with me, or needed me, received love and compassion, healthy doses of it, sprinkled all the way around.

Love, Nancy … we simply need more of it!

8 thoughts on “compassion – born with it, learn it, do dogs have it?

  1. Compassion….kindness…..you can see it from a distance. When I brough my son home from the hospital, Katie would wake me for everyone of my son’s needs. She would sit on the couch next to me while feeding him 2-3 times in the middle of the night. My ltitle Katie girl (14 yo) bit my son in self defense (he bounced on top of her at 5 years old ~ He didn’t see her laying on the white couch ~ she was white also). Once she saw the tears, the blood and the flapping lip severed, she went to his side. He told her it wasn’t her fault. For the next 3-4 days, she moped around the house, knowing that she wanted to comfort him, but that he was afraid of her. She moved over to my parents home for the rest of her days (2 years). She sat next to my parents anytime they were resting or not feeling well. When my son and I would come to visit, he always wanted to be next to her, she loved him for that, but she remembered how she caused him pain and she was much more cautious, she showed her compassion by being protective.

    1. Oh Teri, that made me cry. I remember when that happened. I also remember how tuned in she was to Dad, and how she tried to make things right for him when he didn’t feel well. I agree, you can see compassion a mile away.

  2. You always make me ponder things…
    I loved the Animals and Empathy article. Worth the short read.
    I do believe that yes, animals do have empathy and compassion (and emotions). Do they show in in a way that humans have “defined” – sometimes. This is why I didn’t study psychology, sometimes I think we humans think we really are the “last word” on how things are defined. Compassion, empathy, greif or lack of any emotions….I choose to believe that animals (and heck maybe even insects and the like) have emotions. In fact I think often they use them better than we do! Thanks for the pondering Nancy.

    1. it is a good article isn’t it? I believe our animals are walking emotions and it is a great disservice to minimize or quantify based on ‘human’. Out of all of my dogs right now, believe it or not, Franny is the most compassionate. While she doesn’t go waving her ‘I’m a lover’ flag around, she is always right there when I am sick, one of the dogs is not doing well, or the kids are sad. She seeks out whoever in our house needs emotional support the most… Love you Sherry!

      1. Isn’t it funny how sometimes it is the one who seems most “aloof” that is the one that shows the greatest empathy when the “real stuff” happens! I would say some of my most sensitve dogs in general often can’t deal with the energy of a “situation” where you would see the most compassion from them, yet on a day to day basis they are indeed very compassionate. Love ya too and how you make me think and see my dogs (and people) in a different light.

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