Interesting question. And one with many differing opinions for psychologists, sociologists, theologians, and the like. Certainly it is necessary for humanity to survive. And certainly humans are born with a capacity for kindness. Conversely, we are also wired for self-preservation. For survival. And that sometimes makes us not so compassionate, understanding, or tolerant. Quite mixed bag.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― Albert Einstein
On balance, as those of you that have read my previous compassion thoughts already know, I don’t think compassion itself is inherent in humans- quite frankly, if it were, the world would be a much better place. I think that we all have the capacity, and capability, to learn to be compassionate. But I think that most of us do need to be taught – and more importantly we need to see compassion modeled for us. Ah, but was about the toddler that walks over to hug a crying playmate after a fall? Is that not proof that humans are inherently compassionate? Perhaps it is. Although I might argue that empathy, not compassion had the dominant part. But if compassion is inherent, it is clearly not a dominate behavior. That same child is also quite likely, at another time, to hit, push, throw when they want a toy that the other child has or when they are just tired and cranky. And a different child may simply ignore the crying playmate. Yet another may walk away to look for an adult. Young children (& occasionally teenagers) are unfiltered bundles of raw emotion- good and bad -and research on infants has also shown that they do innately know to make eye contact, and as they begin to develop further, to act in ways that please the caregiver. It is a basic survival mechanism. As they grow, they need to be taught compassion and kindness, respect and tolerance. They need to see it around them. They need to live it in their own daily interactions. That, more than anything else, is what makes a compassionate person. And is one of those realities that makes parenting such an awesome, overwhelming responsibility. Because we are not perfect adults.
Humans are certainly not inherently bad – far from it. We are all basically good people trying to do the right thing. But compassion, as an an awareness of suffering coupled with a need to act to alleviate it, is something more than goodness. In fact, sometimes acting with compassion may conflict with our desire to be kind – or doing what our consciences tell us is the ‘right’ thing. We often conflate the meanings of compassion, empathy, sympathy, kindness, but they aren’t quite the same thing. Our interactions with panhandlers may show this in the starkest light, and so, potentially, does how we deal with friends and family members living with addictions, or older children with behavioral issues. Sometimes doing the most compassionate thing – in these cases, not enabling someone to keep living the way they are when that way is harmful – is really, really hard. Sometimes the compassionate thing is to try to find help for the person – not to directly give money, or even food, to the panhandler. Not to continue to subsidize an addicted family member who continues to fail at treatment. To recognize that helping your child may well mean learning to alter your own behaviors and responses. These are not always the things that seem the kindest to our hearts and minds. And we may not even always feel all that wonderful about whatever steps we took (guilt and self-doubt are peculiar things that are often wrong). But that’s okay.
The thing about compassion is that it is not about us – it is about actively attempting to alleviate the suffering of an other. It may not always be possible to try, and we may not always be successful when we do. Sometimes what is needed may not be what the sufferer wants. And sometimes, when those wants and needs conflict too deeply – as they may when mental illness and addiction are involved – the compassionate thing for yourself may be to walk away. Without guilt.
It may well be impossible to be truly moral or ethical without compassion, and the survival of humanity does, ultimately, depend on people acting with compassion, but if we do not teach compassion, and live compassionately, the world will continue spinning, and there are others that will. But our own circles will be poorer for it, and those that they influence will also feel the lack. There will be fewer ripples in the pond.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
― Robert F. Kennedy