Why Compassion Is Hard

Compassion underlies all world religions, most boldly embodied in the provocation “love your enemies as you do yourself.”  Yet in a world of violence and hatred, where people sleep in the streets of our wealthiest cities, it seems compassion is in short supply.

This shortfall of caring has been outlined recently by the comments of presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who’s exclusionary ideas stand in stark contrast to the peaceful world many want to work toward.

At a time of year when we tend to dream of world peace, and to that end, guilt ourselves and others into being nicer, it’s rare that we spend time truly understanding compassion.

In the following post, I’ll cover compassion from three perspectives: the scientific, the ideological, and the emotional.  The ideas expressed are largely borrowed from a number of TED Talks, and other areas as cited.


The Scientific
Is compassion an innate behavior, or one that you learn?
Why is it hard to show strangers compassion?
How can we be more compassionate in our daily lives?

Robert Wright, a journalist and philosopher and author of several books on the biology of compassion, sees compassion as a natural process of evolution.

In his TED talk titled “The Evolution of Compassion”, Robert explains how we acquired this behavior as a species:

It happened through a principle known as kin selection. And the basic idea of kin selection is that, if an animal feels compassion for a close relative, and this compassion leads the animal to help the relative,then, in the end, the compassion actually winds up helping the genes underlying the compassion itself.”

Another way of saying this is that there’s a strong evolutionary advantage to families who stick together and help each other out.  The problem with this is obvious: compassion, from a biological perspective, is limited to kin.  When we see elephants, dolphins, and birds helping each other, it’s often restricted to their closest family.

In a way, Trump is calling on this more base version of compassion as he seeks to protect his family first (the USA), and exclude others, as you would in a harsh world with limited resources and a powerful desire to survive.

Yet we humans tend to extend compassion far beyond our families.  Nonprofit organizations, a $1.7 trillion industry, prove this point.  Charity is conducted on a principle that there are enough resources to share, and that those who have more than they need should give some to those who don’t have enough.  Even if they aren’t your family.

Robert explains this expanded expression by calling on an increased interconnectedness that technology is driving;

Any form of interdependence, or non-zero-sum relationship forces you to acknowledge the humanity of people. So, I think that’s good. And the world is full of non-zero-sum dynamics. Environmental problems, in many ways, put us all in the same boat. And there are non-zero-sum relationships that maybe people aren’t aware of.”

Maybe Trump would feel different if he believed that “winning” and “making us great” was something that the whole world could do together.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of the book Emotional Intelligence sees a connection between awareness and compassion.

“…This is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.”

Daniel explains that the wiring in our brains is already laid down to show a great deal of compassion for others.  He cites a study conducted at the Princeton Theological Seminary to illustrate this point.  The study concluded that we don’t help others solely out of a desire to do good, we tend to help when we feel we have the time and resources to do so.

What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in — were they feeling they were late, or were they absorbed in what they were (doing).”

This resonates with the evolutionary strategies of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, which balance our drive to help others with our own interests, often favoring the later.

The science is clear: compassion is a fundamental part of being an animal, yet a challenge to extend beyond our kin due to our own selfish interests.  That’s perhaps why we need to encourage each other so regularly, often through systems of belief.


The Ideological
Do we have too high of standards for compassion?
What does it mean to be compassionate?

Love thine enemy (the Bible.)  Compete with each other in doing good (the Quran.)  As a mother even at the risk of her own life watches over her own child, so let everyone cultivate a boundless love toward all beings (The Tripitaka.)

There is no shortage of idealistic notions of compassion, and the same goes for hero-worship stories of good samaritans.  According to Krista Tippett, journalist and host of the NPR show “On Being”, this needs to change.

“Compassion, from my vantage point, has a problem. As essential as it is across our traditions, as real as so many of us know it to be in particular lives, the word “compassion” is hollowed out in our culture, and it is suspect in my field of journalism. It’s seen as a squishy kumbaya thing, or it’s seen as potentially depressing.”

Krista goes on to make a compelling case for our ability to show compassion in a variety of ways.  Compassion is kindness, but it’s also curiosity, the desire to understand and pay attention to someone else.  She highlights the importance of understanding compassion in our daily lives by calling it a “spiritual technology” that humanity needs to develop as we enter a global era of civilization.

The Dalhi Lama summed it up nicely: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”

It’s only when we fear danger, when resources are scarce, and when we are dealing with people different than ourselves that compassion becomes challenging.  This explains why Trump has such a strong following… there are many who are afraid of the way things are changing.  Terrorism.  Religious zealotry.  Political corruption.  It’s natural to want to protect yourself when afraid.

Yet some think that it’s all a matter of perspective, and that when you view the world through the lens of compassion, there’s less to fear. Expanding compassion is the life’s work of Karen Armstrong, religious thinker and author of “12 Steps to a More Compassion Life”.

“So the traditions also insisted — and this is an important point, I think — that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group: your own nation, your own co-religionists, your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called “jian ai”: concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you, says the Quran, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another.”

Karen sees compassion as a worldview, one that requires knowledge of oneself, mindfulness of others, willingness to take action, and a general acceptance for the unknown.  In Karen’s view, when we let our guards down and accept the impossibility of perfect control of our environments, we see that our best chances of survival are when we pull together on the largest scale possible.

This requires a replacement of “being right,” which drives us to argue over plans and details, with the more powerful “being compassionate,” which promotes understanding and consensus. 

Political pundit Sally Kohn articulated this idea beautifully in her TED Talk “Let’s try emotional correctness” where she calls from her experiences as a liberal, gay, commentator… for Fox news.


The Emotional
What is “emotional correctness?”
Why do we so often fail at being compassionate during conflicts?

Sally believes that emotional correctness is an excellent place to start showing more compassion.  At a time when information is pervasive, and the goal proving rightness or wrongness underlies much of our public discourse, it’s hard to remember that getting along is more useful to society than being right.

So someone who says they hate immigrants, I try to imagine how scared they must be that their community is changing from what they’ve always known. Or someone who says they don’t like teachers’ unions, I bet they’re really devastated to see their kid’s school going into the gutter, and they’re just looking for someone to blame. Our challenge is to find the compassion for others that we want them to have for us. That is emotional correctness.”

Sally finds that emotional correctness builds bridges to people who think differently. When we focus our attention on how people are feeling and finding our curiosity to answer the question “why?”, we step over battle lines to forge true connections.

“This whole finding compassion and common ground with your enemies thing is kind of like a political-spiritual practice for me, and I ain’t the Dalai Lama. I’m not perfect, but what I am is optimistic, because I don’t just get hate mail. I get a lot of really nice letters, lots of them. And one of my all-time favorites begins, ‘I am not a big fan of your political leanings or your sometimes tortured logic, but I’m a big fan of you as a person.’ Now this guy doesn’t agree with me, yet. But he’s listening, not because of what I said, but because of how I said it, and somehow, even though we’ve never met, we’ve managed to form a connection. That’s emotional correctness, and that’s how we start the conversations that really lead to change.

And it’s that humble approach that best informs our intent to be more compassionate.  It’s not hard, it’s just not selfish.

It feels good when you are understood by others; it drops defenses and opens possibilities for change.  In an interview, Sally went on to say “we only want to know that our feelings are valid.”

 It’s also possible to be unaware of where your feelings come from; to not understand why you react negatively in certain situations.  It’s easy to be hard on ourselves as we often fall short of our own ideals for behavior.

Kristen Armstrong compiled a life’s work in compassion into a simple, 12-step book (summarized here) aimed at promoting compassion around the globe.  In the book, she advises us to first have compassion for yourself.

She reminds us that compassion wasn’t forged from some peaceful past where we all lived in harmony.  Rather, it evolved in a dog-eat-dog world, where violence and threats to survival were daily experiences.  It’s brought us from a past of fighting like animals to our present state of global economies, improved living standards, and more opportunities to direct the course of your own life.

But let’s not stop here.


The Future
Are we getting more compassionate?
Is world peace possible?

It’s easy to be compassionate on a global holiday celebrating the act of giving to others.  It feels good.  Yet our plight as a species is one of poorly managed conflict, not lack of gift giving.  Our failure to show compassion to others with whom we disagree causes political logjams, abuse of power, and otherwise childish behaviors that often cause in harm to each other and our environment.  Finding compassion in times of disagreement may be more challenging, but the rewards are far greater.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’ve noticed that there are a ton of really smart people around motivated to make this world a little better.  I’ve also noticed a general trend in promoting individual rights, waging less war, and working together in larger and larger groups.  Compassion is spreading around the globe.

I believe as Martin Luther King Junior did when he summarized a powerful idea from generations past: “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Perhaps the key to world peace is coming to terms with our situation as humans.  We’re entering a new age where scientific inquiry has provided the most accurate systems of belief we’ve ever had.  Our departures from old belief systems have caused stress, conflict, and harm, yet have truly resulted in a more peaceful society for more people.

We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m optimistic that our course is true. As compassion grows among us, and the barriers between human communities are torn down, the result will be more peace.

Our ability to survive this transition to a global civilization lies in our collective will to extend compassion beyond our kin.  The time for small group survival has long past.  Let’s grow up.  Let’s be compassionate to everyone.


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