02 January 2015

Compersion for the New Year

No, that's not a typo in the title. I did mean compersion and not compassion. I came across the term in some reading a few years ago (oh, the things you learn as a writer!) and it has stuck with me ever since because I think it fits a part of me that I never knew how to name. Compersion is a word coined by members of the Kerista Commune in the '70s, I believe, and it was used in the context of polyamory to describe the feelings of joy or happiness upon seeing one's partner(s) experiencing their own happiness. When you hear polyamory you might be tempted to zero in on romantic and sexual relationships. Of course, when speaking of polyamory and compersion together, that's going to be part of it. But this post isn't about polyamory. And no matter where the term originated, compersion doesn't necessarily have to be romantic or sexual in nature.

Photo by african_fi
Think about it. When someone else's happiness or joy causes you to feel your own happiness or joy. If you've never experienced it, maybe it doesn't make as much sense to you as it does to me. I think compersion is something I've experienced and expressed for as long as I can remember, in completely platonic ways. It's still something I feel to this day, in many circumstances. It's not quite the same thing as empathy, either. Empathy is when you can understand and identify with someone else's emotions, and perhaps experience them vicariously. But with compersion, it isn't that I'm identifying with someone else's happiness exactly. If a friend gets promoted at work, my empathy allows me to share in their excitement and identify with their happiness. If I experience compersion in that same scenario, what I'm feeling is my happiness. Does that make sense? Empathy and compersion can be experienced simultaneously, and they probably are quite often. I've only very recently (as in, just today) learned of the Buddhist concept/term mudita, which appears to be very close to what I mean when I say compersion. If you're familiar with that, perhaps that's a better framework to think of it. But since compersion is the term I've come to identify with, and I really know very little about mudita, I'll stick with compersion for now.

So anyway... why do I bring it up? Because in our society we often discourage talking about feeeelings past a certain age or beyond a certain scope that doesn't fit into predetermined stereotypes. You can "love" your friends, but you luuuurve your romantic partner (and by golly, you'd better only have one of those at a time, and you're always searching for The One who will show you that you obviously never really knew what love was!) and there's absolutely no in-between or crossover. Boys don't cry. Girls cry a lot. You're allowed to be angry, but not too angry! And so on and so forth, but most of all, nobody wants to really hear you talk about any of those feelings. And so when I experienced what I now identify as compersion at a younger age (and even still now) sometimes it led to feeling tremendously awkward and unsure. I never knew what to say or how to say it. I just knew that I would find myself in these moments of love and joy and happiness that centered around particular people. Friends, teachers, sometimes near strangers, family members. It might've been a simple smile, something small or large happening in their lives that brought them happiness, or even just their natural optimism on a particularly good day. It could be any or all of those things that triggered my own happiness in turn. And it can be potent, that happiness. But when you're a teen experiencing all sorts of complicated things, and no one ever stops and says "Hey, let's talk about happiness and touchy-feely emotional things," it's very easy to start wondering what the hell it is you're actually experiencing.

Growing up, I'd usually just keep my thoughts to myself, especially when they centered around feelings of compersion. Sometimes, though, it got to be too much, and words would just spill out of me. On paper, naturally, because that's how I've always chosen to express myself. (My shyness makes face to face expression of these things nearly unbearable.) So I'd write heartfelt thank you notes to teachers or friends. (Or I'd channel it into fiction if I couldn't bring myself to tell the actual person.) And I probably rambled a lot and tried to name specific things I appreciated about that person because it felt too weird to boil it all down to the simple truth: Your passion brings me joy. So I'd write the note, and I'd hand it over, and then I'd worry myself sick over how they might respond. I didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about what I meant, because I was certain they would. It would be easy to interpret it as something other than what I'd intended. And I was so very afraid of looking stupid, or not being liked, and I would vow never to put myself out there that way again. And I wouldn't, for a while. But then the cycle would start over again.

My teen years went by like that. I'll be 32 this year, and somewhere along the line I really did stop taking the time to put myself out there and express to specific individuals how happy it made me to see their happiness. And if I did express it, it was in a much more careful and guarded way. I'm not sure why. I never did experience that Holy shit, you are such a creep, leave me alone response that I so feared. But I fear it still. Maybe even more now than when I was younger. I'd like to let my compersion be more readily visible again, though. Partially for purely selfish reasons. It just feels so damn nice to revel in that joy. But also because... well... maybe we all need more of it. Even if it's not a feeling you identify within yourself, imagine what it might be like if someone told you that the happiness you derive from the good things in life made them happy as well. Wouldn't that be pretty fucking fantastic? You didn't even have to bake them cookies or loan them money or cure a disease. Just being happy for something good within your own life was enough to make someone else smile. I think it would be pretty nice.

So to all my friends, family, acquaintances, and anyone I may come into contact with this year (and here's the real point of this post) I just want to say this: I'm not trying to be creepy, honest! Don't think me weird or strange or awkward (well, okay, I may very well be awkward) when I tell you how much I love the way you light up when you talk about something wonderful that you've experienced. I really do love seeing the passion you pour into your hobbies and the things you enjoy. That actor or artist you love. The new relationship that's making you walk without even touching the ground. The courage with which you face adversity. The rewards you reap from your hard work. Your book deal. That picture you drew. That kid you're raising. The animal you adopted. I love it. All of it. I'm not just happy for you in all those cases. You truly give me a joy and happiness of my own, the magnitude of which you may never truly understand, just by expressing the happiness those things bring you. Your passion brings me joy. I hope you don't mind if I say so.


  1. Aww, I LOVED this post!! Happy New Year, friend :)

  2. Oops, just tried to leave a comment, and it doesn't look like it worked. Going to try again--and forgive the duplicity in advance!

    This is an absolutely wonderful post, and I am so thankful for your presence in my life, JLo. Your passion certainly brings me joy as well. Happy New Year, my friend, and thank you for all the ways you don't even know you are brightening my life. <3

    1. Thank you so much, Lisa! <3 I hope 2015 holds awesome things for you.

  3. Love it! And you will never be creepy to me. And I've definitely experienced this before. :)


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