Has The Word 'Compassion' Lost Its Meaning?

Dec 20, 2014
Originally published on December 9, 2016 9:12 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Just A Little Nicer.

About Krista Tippett's TED Talk

Journalist and broadcaster Krista Tippett argues that overtly saintly and sappy connotations have made us lose touch with the true meaning of compassion — so she proposes a linguistic revival.

About Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author. She grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher.

She graduated from Yale in 1994 with a master's degree in divinity. While conducting an oral history project for the Benedictines of St. John's Abbey, Tippett began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith.

"Speaking Of Faith" launched in 2003. It became "On Being" in 2010. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for "thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of the human existence."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


So like Sally Kohn, Krista Tippett also works in the media. But let's just say Krista's conversations are a little different.


KRISTA TIPPETT: When you raised in an Orthodox family?


TIPPETT: So this has been your tradition all your life?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I've been - I was brought up in a very Hasidic family.


TIPPETT: You know, even when we're trying to be altruistic or generous, we're hard on ourselves, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would guess the one question that's very interesting is how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow?

RAZ: Krista hosts a public radio show in the U.S. It's called On Being.

TIPPETT: Which is about the great questions at the center of human life - what it means to be human, how we want to live.

RAZ: On Being is the kind of show that actually makes you a more thoughtful person. And for doing that, the White House awarded...


UNIDENTIFIED AWARD PRESENTER: The National Humanities Medal to Krista Tippett for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people to...

RAZ: You can call what Krista does compassionate. She gives all kinds of people a forum to talk about their deepest beliefs without judgment. And yet that word, compassion, it actually makes her cringe as she explained in her TED Talk.


TIPPETT: We're here to celebrate compassion. But compassion, from my vantage point, has a problem. As essential as it is across our traditions, as real as so many of us know it to be in particular lives, the word compassion is hollowed out in our culture. And it is suspect in my field of journalism. It's seen as a kind of squishy, kumbaya thing. Or it's seen as potentially depressing. Now, compassion, when it enters the news, too often comes in the form of feel-good feature pieces or sidebars about heroic people you could never be like or happy endings or examples of self-sacrifice that would seem to be too good to be true most of the time. Our cultural imagination about compassion has been deadened by idealistic images.

RAZ: So when we come back in a moment, Krista Tippett on how to bring meaning and heft back to that word - back to compassion. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, just a little nicer - ideas about compassion. So right before the break, we were hearing the start of Krista Tippett's TED Talk. Krista's the host of the public radio show On Being. And her big idea is that we need to rethink the meaning of compassion.

TIPPETT: What I would say is that compassion is a core virtue that has within it a lot of the other virtues, you know, that either contains them or contributes to them so that it's a really central lens on, you know, what it looks like to lead a worthy life with gracefulness and purposefulness and, I think, a sense of meaning.

RAZ: Here's Krista again on the TED stage.


TIPPETT: Compassion is a piece of vocabulary that could change us if we truly let it sink into the standards by which we hold ourselves and others. And so what I'd like to do this morning is perform a linguistic resurrection. And I hope you'll come with me on my basic premise that words matter, that they shape the way we understand ourselves, the way we interpret the world and the way we treat others. So what is it three-dimensionally? What are its kindred and component parts? What's in its universe of attendant virtues? To start simply, I want to say that compassion is kind. Now, kindness might sound like a very mild word, and it's prone to its own abundant cliche. But kindness is a kind of everyday byproduct of all the great virtues. And it is a most edifying form of instant gratification. Compassion is also curious. Compassion cultivates and practices curiosity. Compassion can be synonymous with empathy. It can be joined with the harder work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it can also express itself in the simple act of presence. It's linked to practical virtues like generosity and hospitality and just being there - just showing up.

RAZ: I mean, and also what you do - right? - just by listening to people - that's an act of compassion.

TIPPETT: I mean, listening is a hugely powerful form of attention. It's presence. And if you are really listening, you are genuinely curious. And you are open to be surprised and changed by what comes back at you. So compassion is not necessarily about agreeing with somebody else. It's not even necessarily about liking them. It is about making a choice to honor their humanity.

RAZ: So I know that the way I think about you - you personify compassion, right? And you are, you know, just this incredibly understanding and empathetic person all the time and that you just kind of live these things. So is that right? You know...

TIPPETT: No, it's not right.

RAZ: OK, it's not. All right.

TIPPETT: I mean, I live these things sometimes. I probably spend more time thinking about them. I spend a lot of time in conversation with people who are embodying them. I do my best, you know? I do my best, but I'm not always able to rise to this. I think what I've gotten better at is forgiving myself for that and getting up the next day and, you know, maybe doing it a little bit better.

RAZ: Do you find yourself, like, recalibrating your compassion compass, like, reminding yourself to think a certain way or to do certain things?

TIPPETT: You know, I actually think that compassion - that we should treat compassion, learning compassion and becoming more compassionate like we treat learning to play the piano or learning to throw a ball, that it's actually something that we can decide we are going to practice. And so, you know, rather than saying I have to become this compassionate person so that I can act this way, actually I think that this is one of these things where the more we do it, it actually then starts to work on us from the inside.

RAZ: It's something you teach.

TIPPETT: Yeah. You teach it. And the more then it becomes instinctive. Just as we are hard-wired to learn a language, I do absolutely think we're born with this redemptive capacity to be compassionate. Then again we have to start to practice it around each other. We have to start to embody it in front of our children and in our common life. I do think that that will be infectious.


TIPPETT: Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize - that our problems in fact are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion - towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others. Einstein became a humanitarian not because of his exquisite knowledge of space and time and matter but because he was a Jew as Germany grew fascist. Compassion can't be reduced to sainthood any more than it can be reduced to pity. So I want to propose a final definition of compassion, and that would be for us to call compassion a spiritual technology. Now, our traditions contain vast wisdom about this, and we need them to mine it for us now. But compassion is also equally at home in the secular as in the religious. So I will paraphrase Einstein in closing and say that humanity - the future of humanity - needs this technology as much as it needs all the others that have now connected us and set before us the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race. Thank you.


RAZ: Krista Tippett. She's the creator and the host of the weekly public radio program On Being. You can check out her entire talk at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.