We're in the midst of a compassion deficit... Let's fix it

An elderly woman, who did not wish to be named, phoned ABC 612 in Brisbane yesterday and told a beautiful story about a stranger, a young man, who briefly chatted with her in the supermarket and took the time to listen to her troubles.

“He asked me if I was poor,” she said, “but I told him no. I’m just going through some tough times at the moment.”

Later, when the woman made her way to the checkout, she learned that the young man had paid for her groceries.

I loved this story; it stood out against the usual news of self-interested people doing good, bad and ugly things. That young man’s casual kindness sparked a kind of longing in me, which is when I realised what’s missing from my life: compassion.

Allow me to state here that I am in no need of sympathy. It’s not incoming compassion I am longing for: it’s the other way round. Its seems that every day there are more natural disasters, more dirty wars and inexplicable murders, but I feel like I can’t care anymore because I simply can’t care enough. Does anyone else feel this way?

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The purpose of compassion

What is compassion and why do we need it? When I was growing up, it was a word that landed very close to the words about an innocent man dying on a cross.

According to C. Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Iowa, compassion is an essential survival skill developed to help humans live together. Itis closely related to empathy, which scientists believe may be the motivating “spark of fellow-feeling” compels us to appreciate moral rules and behave accordingly.

But as the world gets faster and smaller thanks to technology and media, people can unconsciously choose to “switch off” compassion.

“We live in a society of constant connection, in which the successes and sorrows of others are brought to us instantly through phones, computers, TV, radio, and newspapers,” says Cameron. “With that increased connection comes the risk of becoming overwhelmed or overburdened by our emotions. Fearing exhaustion, we turn off our compassion.”

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The assistant professor’s research has showed him that although most people assume it is easier to feel compassion for a large group of people who are suffering, in actual fact humans are generally more disposed to feeling empathy for a single person or small group. This might explain the (not new) conundrum of why millions of children can starve in Africa, but if one toddler in Australia dies, we respond in mass.

Sympathy versus empathy

Brene Brown is an American Scholar who studies human connection. Her wonderful two-minute animation (below) explains the different between empathy and sympathy.

She says, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”

Empathy has four components: being able to take a person’s perspective and understand that it is their truth; not judging; recognising emotions in other people; and communicating that emotion.

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Brown uses the metaphor of a person being down a dark hole. Empathy is when you climb down into that hole and sit with the person down there. Sympathy, on the other hand is when we poke out head down the hole and speak to the person from outside the dark place.

She says empathy is more powerful than sympathy because to feel empathy, “I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling”.

Finding compassion

According to Hindu legend, there once was a time when all people were gods but because they abused their divinity, Brahma, the chief god, took it away from them and hid somewhere they’d never think to look for it – inside within themselves.

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Since then, the story goes, humans have been searching high and low and only when they look into their hearts can they find the endless love and compassion that lives there.

For the more scientifically minded, Associate Professor Cameron says we can increase our “compassion bandwidth” simply by choosing to do so. He says mind-training techniques can help us increase our ability to experience compassion

“There are many meditation traditions that encourage people to cultivate compassion toward self, family, friends, enemies, and strangers. Compassion cultivation techniques have been shown to increase positive emotions and social support, reduce negative distress at human suffering, and reduce people’s fears of feeling compassion for others. Such training programs may prevent the collapse of compassion, by letting people overcome fears of fatigue and accept their own compassion,” says Cameron.

A search for “compassion mediation” will help you find plenty of resources if you’re interested in taking that step.

Do you feel that the world is suffering from a compassion deficit? Do you have any examples of compassion you can share to inspire others?