Sometimes, compassion is obvious; speaking gentle, thoughtful words, holding the door for someone, giving a dollar to the crippled man outside the temple, lending a shoulder for someone to lean on, or not squashing that bug!
Other times, in hindsight (front-blind?) we see that the effects of our actions weren’t how we intended, if we are fortunate enough to see at all. It may have required us to speak strongly, be more honest about how we really felt, encourage them to work a bit harder, or not giving them what they want but what they need. Then, the hard part; knowing what it is they really need.
Still adjusting to fatherhood (still? does the ‘adjusting’ ever end?), it seemed like the compassionate thing was to do what ever I could to make Fina stop crying. It wasn’t long before we both caught on (she before I) that crying was a potential form of manipulation. Then, the compassionate thing to do was to let her cry until she learns she can’t always get what she wants. Where it gets more complicated is in public places. Should the people on the bus suffer for the sake of my daughter learning a lesson? Hmm, the people listening to her cry now might say, “NO!” but her future acquaintances might say, “Yes, yes, yes!”
My mom brought up a topic the other day that I remembered from when I was young. A large campaign petitioning against the use of child labor factories in India eventually lead to the factory ending its employment of children. GREAT! A follow-up study revealed most of the children ended up on the streets, and involved in child prostitution… umm, not so good!
Another common misconception is mistaking pity for compassion. “I feel sorry for her/him,” isn’t helping anything. Now we have one person’s unfortunate situation, and another person inflicted with sorrow. What’s the use in that? Actually, when I hear that term being used, especially in the context of another person’s ignorant behaviour, it comes off sounding a bit self-righteous, as though that person believes themselves to be better.
Where I find I usually lose sight of being compassionate is when I start being more concerned for myself, of course! And, in the end, that isn’t very compassionate to anyone, including myself. I’ve caused a lot of suffering looking out for myself!
Honestly, there’s not a whole lot I’m in a position to say at this stage in my understanding (feel free to add anything!). You may not have to be a Buddha to act with perfect compassion, to have the wisdom to see far and wide enough to know the extent of your actions, but if you can, there’s probably someone out there who refers to you as a Bodhisattva!