Barista wearing a Nirvana shirt.

Is Compassion for Others the Superpower of Influential People?

Recently, I’ve been having many chances to reflect on the importance of having compassion for others (and oneself!).

In the last four months, I lost my godfather (someone who was a near-parental figure to me), as well as three members of my extended family.

Let’s just say it really hasn’t been easy to deal with this. 

Two people died from terminal illnesses within 10 days of each other, one of them on American Thanksgiving Day. I flew home to Europe to be able to attend their funerals. 

Literally right after I had gotten back to my parent’s place after the last funeral, my husband called me: a member of his extended family had just died. 

Recently, I found out about the fourth death, under really tragic circumstances. And I once again find myself on a different continent than my family. 

What I’m taking away from experiencing so much loss is this: 

If there’s one thing that people really need, it’s compassion. It’s a sense of being fully seen and understood, including in their pain. 

What does compassion look like? 

Out of pure chance, I ended up watching a few Nirvana videos the other day. For instance, this one from their MTV Unplugged Performance: 

What stood out to me from that whole performance is the utter emotional rawness of Kurt Cobain. There’s a palpable sense of compassion for the entire audience that I feel coming through his words. 

By expressing his own pain so openly, Kurt Cobain allows me as the listener to feel seen and heard in mine (even 25 years after this performance!).

And there’s something truly beautiful and refreshing about experiencing that. It felt soothing to me as I was going through my own grief process. 

As I re-listened to a few other Nirvana songs, still reeling from my recent loss, I realized just how much humanity they contain. 

Many of the songs go to places that hurt. But unlike some other artists who mainly seem to do this for the shock value (which is better than manipulative marketing, with Nirvana, it always feels like there’s a purpose or a message to it.

Is compassion always soft? 

What I found interesting about re-listening to old Nirvana songs is that they showed that compassion for others can be fierce and blunt.

Take, for instance, the song “Rape Me.” 

That song title is a punch to the gut. You can’t remain neutral in the face of it. 

This title commands attention and an immediate reaction. (For instance: “What the….?”)

And without compassion and a humanistic stance, a song with that title could find itself reduced to something of mere shock value. Something that’s not taking into account what impact sexual assault has on those who had to go through it.

But with the empathy and rightful anger that Kurt Cobain brings to it, the shock value turns into something meaningful — a “razor-sharp anti-rape anthem.” Into something that was intentionally blunt, with the goal of raising awareness and creating a positive impact. 

It’s compassion, combined with Kurt Cobain’s values, that makes all the difference.

Are the most impactful people those who can give compassion to others?

All of this had me wonder if there may be a correlation between compassion and impact. 

Many of the most beloved artists have expressed their own struggles in their chosen art form, whether it’s James Dean, Janis Joplin, or Amy Winehouse. 

The same might be true for authors. Some of the most cherished ones are those who openly bear their wounds, in an attempt to help others make sense of their lives. 

Take, for instance, the Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he talks about his experiences of being in a concentration camp. 

In more recent times, Brené Brown has opened up a much-needed debate about shame. 

Perhaps all this is not a coincidence. Perhaps compassion for others is a superpower, one that allows people to become heroes for others.

After all, none other than the late South African statesmen Nelson Mandela (himself a hero to so many) spoke about the importance of compassion: 

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

And what could be more impactful than that? 

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