Being compassionate helps us connect with others and enjoy better relationships
One of my strongest childhood memories is of feeling someone else's pain.
I was six or seven years old then. And I was at home with my parents, watching the 1939 movie, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, being screened on television.
There is a scene where Quasimodo, the deformed "hunchback" of the title, is bound to a pillory and flogged.
Afterwards, he is left tied to the pillory for an hour, while onlookers jeer and throw things at him.
Quasimodo cries out piteously for water. But his cries merely incite the crowd to further mockery and abuse.
I remember watching this and being overwhelmed by the physical and emotional torment he had to endure.
In the movie, Quasimodo was played by the Oscar-winning English actor Charles Laughton. He clearly did a fine job since, even after all these years, that scene is still fresh and raw in my memory. My father remembers the incident too and tells me that I became so distressed and hysterical that I could barely breathe.
VIRTUE OF EMPATHY
I imagine that many people will be able to recall similar experiences.
It is part of our nature, as human beings, to be able to empathise with the sufferings of other people and other creatures.
The Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, says in his book, The Art Of Happiness: A Handbook For Living: "If you see an animal intensely suffering, like a fish writhing with a hook in its mouth, you might spontaneously experience a feeling of not being able to bear its pain."
This feeling, which can be labelled empathy or compassion, is considered by many religions, and by many people who are not at all religious, to be an important virtue as it can motivate us to act in good and unselfish ways in order to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
The Art Of Happiness devotes an entire chapter to the value and benefits of compassion.
In it, the Dalai Lama argues that when we adopt a compassionate attitude, we not only increase the well-being and happiness of those around us, but also promote our own happiness and well-being.
He says: "Compassion can be defined in terms of a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming and non-aggressive.
"It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards others."
COMPASSION MAKES US HAPPIER
Clearly, adopting such a state of mind benefits those around us.
Who would doubt that a world in which everyone was motivated by a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards others would be a better place?
But how does adopting a compassionate attitude benefit ourselves?
Well, in every aspect of our lives, we rely to some extent on other people.
We rely on them for the food we eat, for healthcare, for material goods, for friendship, for entertainment, for everything.
Others are indispensable. Our lives are inextricably linked to theirs.
So, although we will always encounter problems, difficulties and disagreements in our relationships, it is necessary for us to try to maintain a warm and positive attitude towards those around us.
Compassion is the key to this. When we adopt a compassionate attitude, we recognise that all of the people we encounter, even the unpleasant and irritating ones, wish to avoid suffering and experience happiness, just as we do.
This recognition helps us to connect with them in a warmer, friendlier manner, and, in so doing, enjoy better relationships and lead more fulfilling lives.
•Gary Hayden is a science and technology writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, is out at major bookshops here.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2016, with the headline 'Spread positivity to those who are down'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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