First Responders and Compassion

By Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

First responders are often compelled to be compassionate, but not all first responders can relate to compassion. While the field encourages compassion, do you really know and fully understand what it is to be compassionate? There is often confusion around the word compassion and whether or not everyone is compassionate.

Understanding Compassion

As a first responder, you are often exhausted by the end of your day. You seldom want to share compassion with anyone beyond those that you have an intimate relationship with. The drive to share compassion with others often lessens as the first responder serves. For the average community of first responders, there needs to be a reintegration of compassion into the community.

Compassionate individuals are neither seeking compensation for deeds done nor are they acting in a way to grab the attention of others. Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkley, stated “Compassion and benevolence are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” There is an innate neurological response that occurs automatically triggering compassion for others. Whether or not you would describe yourself as compassionate, you are probably compassionate at least some of the time.

The compassionate individual can relate to others’ struggles and being down on their luck. A compassionate individual thinks about the needs and welfare of others. A compassionate individual is often socially and emotionally conscious. They are often aware of and responding to their personal surroundings.

It is not uncommon for first responders to develop compassion fatigue (aka vicarious trauma). Compassion fatigue occurs when an individual has become numb and disconnected to those that they are serving. As a public service organization, first responders witness a barrage of tragedies, traumas and experiences that are associated with their day-to-day duties.

Compassion Breeds Compassion

We must have an unconditional acceptance and compassion for our own person. If I do not understand compassion, then how will I offer it unto another? Moreover, if I lack empathy for others or myself, then how will I be capable of showing compassion for others?

Compassion is driven by the knowledge that we have within our own person. As individuals, we must be willing to have an unconditional acceptance and compassion for our own person.

Furthermore, compassion is driven by experiences. Most individuals have experienced some form of compassion. We may have had a parent who showed compassion the first time that we fell down and skinned our knees. We may have had a compassionate teacher who encouraged us when we felt discouraged. Compassion often occurs when we least expect it.

Compassion is not simply having an understanding of another’s plight, or sharing in their feelings, but rather, it encourages us to take action and to engage the positive behaviors and pursuits of another.

Teaching and Encouraging Compassion

Compassion can be learned. For those with young children, you teach them lessons of compassion by living a life filled with compassion. If they witness you leading a life of compassion, then they too will live a life filled with compassion. Even an adult can learn to be more compassionate. As a volunteer firefighter, I have witnessed the loss of life, goods, etc. and it has left a profound impression upon my life. A person who freely offers their time gains a lot from this experience.

My own children have been encouraged to be volunteers from an early age. If you take the time to volunteer for the most vulnerable and those in need, it will most assuredly leave an impression upon your life.

A key to being compassionate is active listening. If nothing else, be attentive and engaged. Do not let your own worries and struggles overshadow those of another. If you are attending to the needs of another, resist the urge to cast judgment.

Whether or not you would describe yourself as compassionate, you are probably compassionate at least some of the time.

Everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but sometimes all a person needs is to be heard. It is okay to share your personal experiences when applicable, but avoid conveying the impression that you have all the answers.

For many who are struggling, they are commonly feeling weak and vulnerable. Try to avoid making them feel as though you are superior. Compassion is about being centered and attentive and it requires active participation. The Dalai Lama once said, ”If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Compassion can be encouraged, influenced, and facilitated through a variety of avenues including: meditation, modeling, teaching, and active participation.

Research has clearly shown that the act of compassion has tremendous health benefits. Being a compassionate first responder will make you more relatable to those that you serve. Ultimately, you will have a deeper understanding and willingness to empathize with others. Being a compassionate person will make your intimate relationships healthier.

Compassion is contagious; it encourages others to be empathetic. Dr. James Fowler and Dr. Nicholas Christakis’ research documented that small acts of kindness and generosity have a ripple effect triggering a tidal wave of positive behaviors.

If we encourage compassion, then we are ultimately going to have a more compassionate society.

Asa Don Brown is a professional therapist, advocate, inspirational and motivational speaker, author, and personal-life coach. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Capella University. Brown maintains a private practice in Vestal, New York. He has taught and lectured at the community college, undergraduate, and graduate levels. He regularly consults and engages businesses and business leaders on topics that directly affect their fields.