Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.
Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.
After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”
At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.
Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.
This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.
By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.
Marcus says we should
See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.
Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.