On Compassion

Nuwan I. Senaratna
2 min readJun 25, 2020


When a loved one is in pain, sad, or suffering, I tend to feel that suffering. I was told that such a reaction is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. And its called Compassion.

But the problem I have with Compassion is that, sometimes, it feels bad. As my loved one suffers, I suffer in parallel. And this feels bad.

And how can a good thing feel bad?

Evolutionary Compassion

Just as hitting my thumb with a hammer causes physical pain, a loved one’s in pain induces some form of physical pain in me.

There might be evolutionary roots to this reaction. My thumb was painful because that would alert me to the sickness, and possibly induce me to take curative action.

Similarly, the pain of a loved one would induce me to do something about that pain. Helping the loved one would cure their pain, and hence mine. And indirectly help me. Perhaps not immediately, but in time.

Pseudo Compassion

But there seems to be another source of “compassionate pain” which is less constructive.

When a loved one or I am in pain, sometimes I consider the pain or the circumstances that led to the pain as unjust or unfair. I think to myself “My loved one is not the sort of person who should feel that pain. Why? Because they are “my” loved one. How unfair!!!”

Note, this type of thought assumes that “my world” operates according to specific rules: “My rules”. Including those that say that “I and mine should not suffer”.

This sort of thought is destructive because it is based on unrealistic assumptions. That normal things are not normal.

Beyond Pain

On reflection, it feels to me that much of my pain comes from Pseudo Compassion. And when I let go of my unrealistic expectations for the world, this pain disappears.

On the other hand, while Evolutionary Compassion might be temporarily painful, it leads to constructive action, which, at some level, leads to a lessening of pain for both me and my loved ones.

Evolutionary Compassion seems to be like a rudimentary form of a broader, more general and perfect compassion. What if this basic instinct that only applies to loved ones can be expanded to a much broader set?

What if one felt “Everyone’s pain is my pain”? How constructive might that be?



Nuwan I. Senaratna

I am a Computer Scientist and Musician by training. A writer with interests in Philosophy, Economics, Technology, Politics, Business, the Arts and Fiction.