The Beginning of Compassion: How to Be a Better Person

Several winters ago, my friend Paul and I collected some blankets to give away to a community of homeless people in downtown Nashville. When I invited another friend to join us, he scoffed.

Homeless man
Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7 via Compfight cc

“You’re just doing that because it makes you feel better,” he said.

I didn’t know what to say. The comment bugged me; but for some reason, I couldn’t quite shake it. Was it true?  The following day, I went downtown again to find out.

While distributing blankets and clothes, I took a mental inventory of how I felt.

At first, pretty good. It was November, and people were appreciative of the blankets. When we got ready to leave, though, I glanced back to see a group of men and women huddled around a small fire.

My heart sank.

The group was full of people ranging from ages 20 to 50, all scantily clad and shivering. I didn’t feel better about myself. I felt terrible, wishing we could have done more than provide a few scraps to keep these people warm. What we had done was nowhere near enough. And that’s when it hit me.

This is the beginning of compassion: not feeling better, but feeling worse.

Because you can always do more; you can always give something extra, always meet another need. If your heart doesn’t break each time you go to places full of pain and hardship, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

The reality anyone who has done work like this will tell you is that when you expose yourself to the deep needs of the world, it feels anything but good. Compassion is messy work. It hurts.

No one ever says this. You never read it on a billboard or one of those red Salvation Army buckets outside the grocery story during Christmastime. But it’s true. Doing good sometimes feels bad.

Doing Good Feels Bad

There’s no other way to say it. If you want to get involved in helping other people because you think it will make you feel better, then you had better change career paths. Because the last thing you will feel is good.

The real road to meaning is dirty and full of jagged rocks, sprinkled with pieces of broken glass and cigarette butts. It’s long and difficult and not what you would expect. But it’s the only way.

Jesus called it the “narrow road.” John Bunyan depicted it as a violent struggle to enter paradise. Emily Dickinson wrote about in a poem:

Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed / To comprehend nectar / Requires sorest need.

Sorest need — ouch.

If we want to live lives of purpose that will make an impact on those around us, we must be willing to grow in our compassion — to let go of fear and discomfort and embrace the hard stuff.

We who are rich with respect to the rest of the world must come to grips with our own poverty, our own self-centeredness and egotism. We must allow our hearts to be broken and our safety disrupted, so that we can make things whole again.

We must fall apart before we can build up. This is the only way to redeem whatever’s been lost — we must be willing to hurt with those who are hurting so that true healing can come.

Anything else is not compassion. It may raise money for charity or impress the neighbors, but it won’t satisfy.

Note: This was an excerpt from my book, Wrecked. You can pick up a digital copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.

What do you think? What does it take to be a person of true compassion? Share in the comments.

84 thoughts on “The Beginning of Compassion: How to Be a Better Person

  1. Like you did with the blanket… we must visit the homeless, the old, and the needy.
    Open our eyes to the ugliness they see.
    Listen to the sounds of poverty they hear.

    Sniff the assaulting odors they can’t cover.

    Only then will we brush the surface of compassion.

  2. I’m so glad someone finally said this. While doing outreach in college, it hurt. Badly. I’d cry after we left those we’d help and I thought something was wrong with me. Because you realize just how deep the suffering in this world is and you feel powerless to do anything to alleviate all of it. This realization helps us to rely on God and his abilities.

  3. I might humbly add that this state of compassion, of suffering with those who suffer (and allowing others to do the same for us), this brokenness, should be how we live and not just a state we visit during the holidays. It’s in the long-term sharing of pain and joy where change happens.

  4. Yes, other people’s pain can cause us distress, even burnout if we are not careful to resource ourselves with some of that care we sometimes more easily extend to others. Compassion training can increase our resilience and face the suffering of others with less hurt and more love and a sense of connection to others. It is an antidote if you like, meaning we can help without getting so distressed ourselves.

      1. It is an interesting question you pose. I am not sure numb is the word I would use. Strong, yes, but not unfeeling. Mindfulness as we know, is about being 100% present to what is happening. When we combine that with extending kindness to ourselves (self compassion) for what we feel – the despair that others should suffer – and acceptance that suffering is part of life for all of us, we can feel more shared humanity with those who suffer, more sure of our own ability to give without becoming overwhelmed by our feelings or their pain AND more focused on their needs and less on our own in the situation. The people I teach mindful self compassion say they feel MORE connected to themselves and others, not less. It strengthens us. Like the Dalai Lama – one of the most compassionate and upbeat, happy guys I can think of.

  5. Jeff, I think you’re talking about empathy, that it’s knowing that you need compassion as much as anyone, so you will be compassionate to others who need it.

  6. I lived something like this here in Rio, when I helped as a volunteer on a hospital with children with cancer and other diseases. I gave up the help a year later because it was hurting my heart so bad, and i didnt know how to proceed. But i know i must help again and always. I still dont know how to do it yet, but i’m working on it. Thanks for sharing, Jeff. Hope to see your books on brazilian bookstores soon.

    1. Thanks, Marcio — for the comment for and for volunteering. Shoot me an email, and we’ll see what we can do to get my books to you: jeff at goinswriter dot com.

      1. Hi, Jeff, i already sent you an email 3 days ago 🙂 marcioc at gmail dot com…. thank you very much for answering me 😀

  7. The “narrow road” Christ referred to was Himself. Even the secular world practices doing its version of good for others. But the secular world does so without Jesus Christ as its focus or reason for doing that good. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good when helping others or feeling bad that there is much more to do. The key is: Where is the focus on the gospel and Jesus Christ? Blankets are great. But blankets plus a gospel tract or a New Testament are even better.

    1. You know, Wally, in my years of doing homeless ministry, I often was ready to “share the Gospel” and was surprised by how often people living on the street beat me to it. Truly, blessed are the poor.

  8. I don’t think it’s one or the other. Giving naturally makes people feel good, and to me, I can feel good from giving — all mixed in with truly feeling the hurt of the other person.

    1. Thanks, Karen. You may be right. What I know is that the good doesn’t seem to come without the bad — the heartache, the struggle with the guilt, the pain of knowing you could do more. But yes, you’re right; it can be very rewarding to give. My point is that if we stop at merely feeling good about ourselves, it may not have been about the other person at all.

  9. That’s impact over interest my friend…wow, what a fantastic post. I will say this, a little dignity bestowed by a blanket can go a long way…sometimes the reason we don’t is because there is this impact blinder that whispers in our ear that it won’t matter, but that’s a pernicious lie…if whatever “it” is is from the heart…(i.e., compassion), it always matters…

  10. “John Bunyan depicted it as a violent struggle to enter paradise.”

    If not to make yourself feel better in the moment, are you distributing blankets to up your odds of entering paradise later on?

  11. I have a feeling the next station after feeling bad is feeling good again, because you reach contentment regardless of the impact of your good work since you have reason to believe your work is right. You have REASONED to it. Knowing you are mortal, finite, you do the best you can, and that should only feel good in the FINAL analysis. Thank you Jeff for sharing your insights.

  12. Jeff, thanks for sharing this post. We could all be more compassionate. We are blessed and to see others hurting should break our hearts. Lord help us to have more compassion for those who are hurting around us and do our part to make this world a better place for us all.

  13. Jeff, this post reminds me of the last 3 minutes of the movie Schindler’s List, the compassion he had for others just made it impossible for him to be happy or satisfied if even 1 person was not saved, I believe this is a trait that can be learned and is in one way or another inside us all, we just get so caught up with day-to-day it’s easy to side step.

  14. I agree. What a wonderful post. Thank you. We need to be involved. Doing special things for people means we’re God’s hands and feet on this earth. I saved your post in a folder in my email. Merry Christmas!

  15. A wonderful post, and reminder, especially at this time of year… It makes me think of the concept of bodhisattva. I jut bought “Wrecked” and am looking forward to reading it through this holiday season… Thanks for sharing your insight and wisdom and making it so affordable, Jeff!

  16. I am so glad you wrote this post – always wondered why I would ‘leave’ a compassionate situation feeling worse than when I entered it, and what I was doing wrong. I guess we get all caught up in the outward situation, and yes, you feel you have done something (only a little) to make someone else’s life a bit better, but you do not feel it is ever enough. Thanks for this post, it makes me feel a bit more ‘normal’ – I shall save this one

    1. You are totally normal, Louise, in your feelings. However, you are quite extraordinary in your choice to reach out and act compassionately to someone else. Thank you for caring.

  17. Timely message for me to hear this AM!

    The best gift is the sacrifice Jesus made for me, for everyone…then I received another gift today (today is my b’day) wrapped up in your words today. Hurts so bad can feels so good. I was reminded (and glad to be reminded) that it is in dying that we truly live.

    Thanks Jeff!

  18. I saw her. In the red coat. Weeping on a curb. I left service under the bridge (for the homeless) and went to her, cried with her, talked with her, and prayed with her. We missed church that day … but we became friends. She now comes to the services under the bridge and last week, I saw her again, in the red coat in below freezing weather, made U-turn and picked her up and gave her a ride home. She said, “I was just thinking about you. How you came to me and sat with me when I was a wreck. And now here you are picking me up in your car.” … Jeff, I think you are so right, compassion does hurt. I pray I keep “hurting” so I can love others for Christ.

      1. I’m really just a blonde who loves to talk and sharing Jesus comes with the talking, the hugging, the praying, the sitting and being with someone. Okay, sometimes it even comes with the driving of my Chevy…

      1. I love how God sent me with Popsicles to the streets and now, some of my best friends are under a bridge … humbling, I’d say.

  19. Lovely post Jeff. It really inspires me to reach out to others less fortunate. And reminds me of Kahlil Gibran who says ‘the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’. I love that, and the notion that we really can’t separate our joy from our pain.

  20. Ouch. What a beautifully dark realization. It’s true that charity doesn’t make you feel good. If it did, people would probably give a lot more often. Charity reminds you of how little you are really helping, which is why I think people are so reluctant to help. They see a mountain of need and to move it will take more than a shovel. Something is more than nothing though, especially if we all had shovels.

    1. Compassion is vital to humanity. When people show compassion it brings the human race together. Everyone has the need toto feel accepted, loved, and validated. Practice compassion to help others grow.

  21. Love the point you make… Thank you.
    My question on this pain: Is God’s pain of compassion devoid from great Joy and peace?
    Scripture says, Light and dark are the same to Him and This New Man has His nature Weeping for others but at the same time… rejoicing in Hope
    Thanks again

    1. Interesting question, Christopher. Let me see if I understand it…

      Can compassion exist without joy? No, I don’t think so. It’s joy, or love, that compels us to share the pain of another. It’s the motivation that allows us to enter those dark, painful places.

      In my experience suffering and happiness are connected — two opposites on the same spectrum. When you minimize one, you tend to minimize the other.

      In other words, the more you love, the more you will suffer. On the other hand, the more you avoid suffering, the less love you will experience.

      You can’t have one without the other, at least in this life.

  22. I liked this post, and agree with your point for the most part! I just don’t think you went far enough with it…

    To be be compassionate in the utmost sense, to me, is to actually go as far as to enter into the suffering of another person. I mean, as radical as it sounds, to actually have meaningful conversations (by taking one homeless person out to lunch, breakfast, or dinner) and really “feel” them.

    I found out through doing the above that they are just like you and I, and have a lot of the same struggles that we do. We don’t have to worry so much about if there is going to be room for us in a shelter.

    Although this is not for everyone, and don’t feel bad if you don’t or can’t do it. 🙂

    1. You’re absolutely right, Sean. I’ve had similar experiences. True compassion stems from sharing life (with all its pain and joy) with another person.

  23. When I look into someone’s eyes and see such deep pain, I am undone by my paltry ability to make a difference. But I remember what it felt like to be in pain, feel unlovable, and have someone look into my eyes and bear my pain with me. Little moments of grace did have an impact on me. And that gives me some consolation that even though my little drop in the bucket won’t eradicate the whole situation of someone’s suffering, I can at least show them they matter.

    Caring about someone does mean we will hurt when they hurt. And yet, when one has received grace one feels compelled to offer grace, even if it hurts. Shutting out pain that results from compassionate engagement only shuts us in a self-centered, lonely prison.

    Thank you for this moving post. It is going in my Evernote folder for further reflection!

  24. My years of volunteering in food banks taught me to take the long view as I volunteer, namely that xx number of people were less hungry *today* because I helped. Multiply those todays over years and that’s a lot of people.

    I don’t know that I agree that you can volunteer for the wrong reasons. What is wrong with feeling good about your actions? Isn’t that uplifting to those you serve and those you try to recruit to help volunteer? Perhaps you do feel a little proud about your service — that does not negate the service you provided.

    It’s easy to be academic about this subject rather than practical. If you feel good and hand out food, you are showing grace and someone is less hungry. If your heart is breaking for them and you hand out food, you are showing grace and someone is less hungry. The end result is the same and, most importantly, people receive help.

    I think if we make it too hard, or require too much introspection, we miss the chance to jump in and help.

  25. I didn’t get time to read all the comments, I liked Laura Naiser’s comment, most of the pain does come from feeling lonely and unloved or being on the sidelines in life.

    Like your post Jeff, however being compassionate for me in the highest regard is sharing knowledge, empowerment and empathy, the world doesn’t need you or me to cry for it, it will be a weakening effort at best.

    Compassion = Empathy + Guided Efforts + Be Guided By Your Mission which is ultimately there to help the larger community in some way. + Be Detached(the important one.) and avoid Self-Aggrandizement, working without expecting a return investment.

    However again, there’s a catch, one doesn’t let his compassion rule him, it is mostly the ability to see the larger scope of things and doing the RIGHT thing, which again is a skill.

    Growing up, I thought Compassion was forgiving people at all costs, or turn your other cheek around when you get slapped on one. This will get you humiliated at best. So again, doing the RIGHT thing matters.

  26. “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:3
    No matter how much money, or time or material goods we invest into others it is nothing if we do not love the people we are giving those goods to.
    “And of some have compassion, making a difference:” Jude 22
    We make a difference in people’s lives not by what we do but by how we love.

  27. This is a lovely post, Jeff, sharing a painful truth. You’ve explained why I often feel terrible when I give to someone begging on the street – and I wonder if those who don’t give are deterred, at least partly, because they don’t want to face those feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Riches can be a great burden.

  28. Wow – wonderful message. Perfect holiday timing. We have so many opportunities to give during the Christmas season; put change in the red bell ringers bucket, grab a toy for a women’s shelter, send a check to a charity, etc. So often I’ve done those things without much thought or effort and felt pretty good about myself. Your point that real compassion leaves us feeling bad is so true; the times I’ve truly given sacrificially and from the heart are the times I’m left feeling broken over my inability to help further. Thank you for sharing your heart through this post!

  29. Hi Jeff,

    It’s interesting that the guy you invited said, “You’re just doing that because it makes you feel better.” For me, that would have more than ‘bugged me’. Sure, we all need to check our motives with all kinds of things we do, but the audacity of his response?

    I would calmly said to him, “Well sir, at least I am doing something right now. How does that make you feel?” [wink + smiley face].

    Great post, Jeff. [And thanks for following me on Twitter too. You Rock!]


    1. Robb, I’m with you. So what if I’m just doing it because it makes me feel better? If I feel holier when I suffer does that make it better? Do you think the recipients really care whether or not you suffer when you reach out to help? I think it’s built in, it’s part of being human, for some of us to feel good about reaching out to help someone. What’s wrong with that? It’s enough to help in whatever way we can.

      1. Hi Jenifer, I don’t think the recipient has a right to judge motives. But he could have been wanting someone to really be compassionate to him and sit down and talk awhile. If doing something nice makes you feel better, I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s a win-win situation. Being a pastor for 20 year I know that helping people feels awesome. And when we do, we’re almost God-like because we’re not focusing on ourselves at the time. Hope that helps,


  30. Being open to heartbreak is a practice for me each day. I avoided it for so long. Yes, compassion and heartbreak go hand in hand. Until you have truly indulged your own pain and even just the sight of another’s suffering, you just can’t get there. Thank you for this post Jeff. It was exceptional!

  31. Living in a seniors community, I have offered to take some of the more frail members shopping on occasions. I have never thought about myself as compassionate or kind or whatever. I just do it, well up until recently, when one of the members said I was ‘stupid’ for doing it & another said ‘you are being taken advantage of’.
    So, to assess for myself, I took a break from doing the shopping thing. I can tell you that some of the members are a tad miffed with me right now!

  32. It doesn’t feel good to do these things, I agree. A few weeks ago a man stood in the freezing rain holding a sign that said “grateful for anything”. I felt the need to do something and went through a drive thru to get him a meal and a hot coffee. I left it with him and he was grateful, but as I drove away I cried. Was that really all I could do? I felt awful, but I knew in my heart I had nothing else to give him but my prayers. I felt terrible. It doesn’t feel good to give but giving isn’t about us, it’s about the person being given to. And as my husband reminds me, that small gesture could have made more of a difference than I realize. I’ll never know.

    1. Well done, Teri. Your heart is breaking — that’s a good thing. It means you’re really demonstrating compassion. It means your heart is in the right place.

  33. Years ago in a small village in Honduras, I gave God permission to break my heart for the hurting and the forgotten and send me to places no one will go. He has been faithful to answer that prayer over and over again. And yes, you’re right, it hurts! And most of us run from that pain. I, like you, found a heart for the homeless as well as those in prison. Theres a lot of hurting people out there that need compassion, and they’re important enough to allow ourselves a portion of their pain.

  34. Thank you. As a marriage and family therapist, my heart breaks on a regular basis. I will retire if and when I don’t allow myself to feel the pain of people hurting as I have the privilege to come alongside them.

  35. Yes!!! That was so good. I was thinking of that today when I was driving home after lunch with three women. The conversation around the table was about the Happy Hours and Christmas parties that they had at the retirement home that they lived in. The other woman talked about all the Hallmark Movies that she has watched on TV. I got very bored with the conversation because I am a volunteer for organizations helping battered women or helping retired people that are having a hard time. I felt like I did not have anything in common with these women though I had known them for fifty years. They never ask me what I have been doing and I come to the realization that they wanted to isolate themselves to getting down and getting dirty with the hard times. Thank you for this. It was what I needed today.

  36. I am so thankful for my “breaking.” It taught me to cling to Jesus who always leads me to the broken. Not to merely help them but to enter into their pain with them. Jesus said He was near to the broken-hearted and where He is, I want to be. It’s where treasures of joy are found. True joy. Joy that’s not void of suffering but joy that’s forward looking. This life is over in a flash and what we have done in selfless love counts for eternity.

    This might be my favorite of yours!

  37. The journey into “the broken” is truly a strange and beautiful one. I have been depressed my whole life. I haven’t ever really understood why. And I certainly could never figure out why I would leave a place of depression, enter into a place of happiness and contentment and then leave that place because it feels more uncomfortable than the place of “broken”. As I age and continue to press into the Lord and that place of brokenness, I am understanding it more. I embrace it with a willingness I haven’t had before and I confidently enter into the areas of depression so I can walk with the people in that place at that time. And you’re right, it is a jagged and ugly walk. But it is very fulfilling when one journey ends and you begin another.

  38. This was probably my favorite part of “Wrecked”. Working with people in recovery, or trying to be, has changed my views in so many ways, especially as I’ve learned more about our justice system in America and worked with women who have never had one healthy relationship, even as a child. My journey to sobriety was a cakewalk compared to many of theirs. I loved your book. It spoke my heart and I’ve recommended it numerous times!

  39. As a writer myself, much of my time is engaged in being an observer. During those days that I spend in an older adults program, there are many opportunities to observe the interactions of staff with participants.

    Just this past week I watched one particular staff member as she went about seeking out those who appeared to be struggling either physically or emotionally. After watching for a while, I invited her over to my area. As she sat down, I mentioned what I had seen. I than asked her why she was so focused on interacting with participants, “I like to help.”

    I responded by sharing my observations about helping, “everyone here (staff) helps, but you go beyond simply helping. You show compassion in how you engage participants.”

    As with you Jeff, compassion is among the most important of acts. Compassion is so much more than helping, it is even more than caring. Helping and caring are things we do for others. Compassion is an act of love; representing what we do with others.

  40. Hi Jeff Goines! I am an published writer and still I write inspirational quotes writings have you will. Can you take a moment and read on my wall and/or my notes and to see if I am good enough to fulfilled an experienced writer to have a career writing??

  41. Jeff Goins: You’ve discovered “Buddhism 101”. Also the beginning of Dispassion. You discover/cultivate Compassion as you begin to see and feel all the suffering in the World. As you bare ‘witness’ here, when it starts, it paradoxically feels bad. To keep that Compassion without developing Compassion Fatigue, you develop/discover Dispassion; the acceptance that you, personally, cannot end all this suffering. [Same thing happens in one’s self/soul. You first learn to love yourself (inward Compassion) but then hopefully learn to accept your own failings and inadequacies, a kind of selfless love (inward Dispassion).] Most Americans think that Buddhists just don’t care. They can’t grasp that Buddhists understand that detachment is the only way to maintain their profound compassion. (OK, now I’ve left “Buddhism 101” and ventured into “Intro to the Dalai Lama”. My bad…

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