Compassion and the Care Hierarchy

Care Hierarchy.png

I have been using the word empathy quite a lot on this blog. It is one of the most important qualities a person can nourish, and one of the hardest to learn. Despite its importance, somehow – due to laziness or negligence – I have failed to really give it a proper definition. Empathy is often confused with a number of other similar concepts and feelings (especially sympathy) and as such it is important to obtain a true understanding of what empathy is and is not prior to practicing it in your daily life.

So, in order to illustrate empathy and it’s differences, I’ve created a little something I call the “Care Hierarchy.” I don’t wish to imply that the thoughts I am sharing with you here are by any means solely my own – in fact the majority of the thoughts in this article have been informed by countless psychologists and philosophers – this article simply intends to present the information in a categorical and understandable fashion.

What Is the Care Hierarchy?

Put simply, the Care Hierarchy is an ordered list of the different ways in which we can share in the feelings of others, especially their distress, sorrow, or unfulfilled desires. As one progresses up the hierarchy, one in turn becomes more connected and close to those with whom they are interacting. Ideally, one should be attempting to be as compassionate as possible while quelling thoughts of apathy and pity. At each level along the way, tips will be provided in order to work your way up the hierarchy. So, without further ado, let us begin at the bottom of the hierarchy, with apathy.


Apathy is defined as a distinct lack of emotion or concern. The majority of us have practiced apathy in our daily lives. When we are being told an incredibly boring story, for instance, many of us will “tune out” the other person in favor of our own thoughts, perhaps picking up just enough of what they are saying to appropriately respond. We often ignore others’ problems in favor of telling them our own, or fail to consider others’ feelings. For an example on a larger scale, look no further than the continued failure of America as a country to respond to the Mass Shooting crisis, or the treatment of Syrian refugees by those countries and states refusing to grant them asylum.

It should be clear why apathy is never an adequate response or attitude. By failing to care for others or consider their pain, we treat them as less than ourselves, and by extension, less than human. By treating others with apathy, we fail to recognize them as beings that suffer and triumph the same as we do. It is very difficult to make friends and maintain social relationships if you are not showing care for others around you; people hate feeling like they have not been heard or understood. Similarly, apathy can often be as bad as causing harm. While ethicists may never resolve their debate regarding whether or not one can be held liable for one’s inaction the same way one can be held accountable for one’s actions, it is safe to assume that failing to act when given the opportunity will not produce as much good as doing something.

I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn.

– Leo Buscaglia

I should note here that sometimes it can be very difficult for some people to express more than apathy. Mental illnesses such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder can make it very difficult for people to properly express care for others. However these are the very people for which the care hierarchy can be most beneficial – it can create a support network of love and friendship that can aid them in their battle against mental illness.

Examples of Apathetic Actions

  • Not listening to your friend or partner as they describe the details of their day to you
  • Laughing at the plight of others or refusing to help those in need
  • Failing to show gratitude or reasonably reciprocate gifts or salutations from others
  • Living unreasonably above one’s means when others are being harmed by one’s actions

Tips for Reducing Apathy

  • Force yourself to shake up your routine. Practice shame-attacking exercises, or talk to someone new
  • Practice mindfulness. Become wary of your speech and try to transition from making statements to asking questions
  • Read this book. I cannot recommend it enough as a stepping stone for those just beginning their foray into personal interaction (though a word of caution on Part 6 – Dale was still a man of his time)
  • Practice minimalism and charity


Pity is defined as a feeling of sadness or sorrow at another’s plight. It is considered to be a more paternalistic emotion; it typically begins as an aversion to the plight of the sufferer and ends with an act of mercy. While it is better to feel pity for someone than to be apathetic to their needs and desires, pity is a similarly problematic practice. Often pity holds a connotation of condescension; it is an act performed on a particular party rather than one performed with a particular party. Typically, acts of pity are done out of a sense of duty or self-loathing: giving change to a homeless person because one feels guilty of one’s own fortunes, or mercifully reducing the sentence of a criminal because one wishes to dutifully spare them the horror of prison. Due to the act being leveraged upon somebody rather than felt with them, it becomes a power play. One is showing a contempt for the weakness of another party and placing one’s self above them.

To pity distress is but human; to relieve it is Godlike.
Horace Mann

Pity is also very much a spectator emotion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. Often, pity is characterized by a feeling or desire to help without any corresponding action on the part of the pitier. One may feel a sense of sadness towards another party while simultaneously refusing to help in any reasonable way.

Examples of Pity

  • Silently and hastily dropping money into a beggar’s cup because one feels bad for having more material goods and opportunities
  • Feeling sad after watching news of a Mass Shooting in your town, but failing to help in any way
  • Claiming you are upset that third world child labor contributes to your morning cup of coffee but failing to take any action against it (reducing your intake, buying Free Trade coffee)

Tips for Reducing Your Sense of Pity

  • Acknowledge other’s hardships: recognize that other people suffer just as you do, and their life is just as valuable as yours
  • Commit some of your time to others. Allow other people to share time and personal closeness with you
  • Don’t treat others as a means to feel better about your higher status. Treat them as equals, or better yet, as superiors


Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone accompanied by a wish to see them better off or happier. It is a cognitive recognition of another person’s feelings. A step above pity, sympathy straddles the line between an act performed on a particular party and one performed with a particular party. While sympathy does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, it does involve a level of concern that pity does not. Sympathy involves an acknowledgment of another person’s suffering; by making it known to them that we recognize their emotions we can provide a level of comfort and concern that we otherwise could not.

It is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.
– Oscar Wilde

Though sympathy is certainly a step up from pity and is warranted in many situations, it too can be a problematic practice. The main problem with sympathy is that it tends to focus on the pain that is being felt by the other party instead of the particular emotions, environment, and thoughts that have led to that pain. While it does recognize the existence of the suffering, it typically fails to understand why the other person feels the way they do. There is still a disconnect between the sufferer and the person practicing sympathy – one does not attempt to feel what the other person is feeling or truly understand the reasons they feel they way they do.

Examples of Sympathy

  • Sending a card offering condolences to a friend who has lost a loved one or recently endured a hardship
  • Giving advice or encouragement to someone struggling
  • Listening as someone describes their pain

How to Go Beyond Sympathy

  • Put yourself in another’s shoes: Try to understand what life would be like for someone else. Recognize that this hardship may not affect them the same way it would affect you.
  • Show you have a deep understanding of the pain they are going through. Share similar stories to build rapport, but ensure these do not distract from your main goal
  • Imagine becoming one with the other person – share their feelings of sorrow and grief.


Empathy involves showing a deep level of understanding by actively entering into another’s experience. Many people have a basic understanding of what empathy entails; if you’ve ever heard the platitudes about walking a mile in another’s shoes, you’ve at least been acquainted with the idea. The word comes from the German Einfühlung, which literally translates to “in feeling.” Empathy, as opposed to sympathy, involves actually being “in” and experiencing the suffering of others as opposed to simply recognizing its existence. While empathy does not necessarily require one’s having experienced the same suffering as the other party in actu, it does necessitate an active process of placing one’s self in someone else’s social location and attempting to feel and think as they do. Empathy requires vulnerability, as one must connect with one’s own feelings and actively try to feel and experience what another might be feeling.

See yourself in others, then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?

– The Buddha, as quoted from the Dhammapada

Empathy often entails a kind of intellectual identification with another person as well; one should share another’s thoughts (even if one disagrees with their conceptions) in order to better understand the reasons for their feelings. It is impossible to empathize with abstract feelings or ideas. In order to properly empathize, one must imagine one’s self as someone else in the particular situation in which they find themselves, with all their thoughts and biases intact.

Examples of Empathy

  • Using phrases such as “I know what it feels like to…” or “You must be feeling…” to show your level of understanding
  • Reading someone’s blog to understand their emotions or learning about how others’ identities are marginalized
  • Listening to their fire mixtape (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself)

How to Practice Empathy

  • Ignore your viewpoints and opinions. Avoid filtering someone’s worldview through the sieve of your own desires and biases
  • Defend the other person’s perspective and reassure them it is one you share and understand
  • Listen actively and intently, asking questions for clarification but otherwise avoiding interruption; never let them feel as if they are being rushed


The gold standard. Or perhaps the green standard, as according to my chart. Compassion is more engaged than empathy and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. While compassion shares with empathy the need for understanding and embodying a shared experience, it goes above and beyond and entails an unselfish, cooperative effort to overcome the experience. Compassion often shares elements with generosity and altruism, and typically involves a meaningful, change inducing action. It is also often suggestive of a long term commitment to the other person; one showing compassion will typically stick with another person through their hardship(s) until a resolution is found. Compassion involves a skilled understanding of when certain actions are needed or warranted; one listens when it is perceived through empathy that the other person wishes to be heard, one offers guidance and encouragement when it is perceived that the other person is confused, and maintains strength when others express dangerous or self-defeating ideas.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Dalai Lama

Compassion also involves a certain level of selflessness. Acting compassionately often requires either placing someone else’s needs above one’s own, or making another’s needs one’s own and working to fulfill them. Note, however, the stark contrast between the aid given through compassion and the aid given in pity: when one is giving compassionately, it is heartfelt and based on the needs of the other person, not one’s own. It is done with no ulterior motive and it is offered wholly and completely, not with reservations and exception clauses.

Examples of Compassion:

  • Adopting and raising a child from an orphanage instead of having your own children
  • Inviting a homeless man to your Christmas dinner and treating him with the same love and respect as your family
  • Imparting knowledge and growth to others through coaching a team or teaching a class
  • Sean Maguire, Robin Williams’ psychologist character in the movie Good Will Hunting

How to Practice Compassion

  • Go out of your way to help people, even when doing so may not seem to necessarily serve your best interest at the time
  • Build and maintain strong, equal, communicative and reciprocal relationships with other people
  • Volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, abuse hotline, or elsewhere

It can be difficult to practice compassion in our everyday lives. Our work weeks are hectic and our schedules are busy. But taking some time to interact with others and create lasting relationships is always worth the effort. It has the power to transform your environment both at the workplace and home, and more importantly it has the power to transform the lives of others. So I challenge you, before next Friday, to show genuine compassion for someone in your life. It doesn’t have to be a stranger – we often forget to show compassion even for those who are closest to us in our lives – though bonus points if it is. If you do indeed decide to act compassionately this week, I encourage you to share your stories in the comments below, or in a post of your own.

Also, I wish to apologize for the increased delay between posts as of late; projects, finals and theses are all coming due and life is proving to be a bit hectic. Expect some posts in the coming week about my progress interacting with people and perhaps some philosophical musings on the future of social interaction in the face of the coming transhumanist revolution. As always, thanks for reading, and be sure to share this with others you think may benefit from it.


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