Marge lay exhausted at the end of a long day, her eyes puffy from too many tears. It has been an emotional day for her. As she lay on the sofa catching a quick break, an ear out for when her son’s trach needs suctioning, she becomes acutely aware that her back hurts more than usual tonight. Maybe it has something to do with lifting her “Champ” in and out of his wheelchair ten times today. “He’s getting so big, my big boy.” She works to let go of another wave of anger over the situation surrounding his birth. All these years later, she continues to struggle to accept what is, when she wishes her boy could be healthy. Getting to acceptance and gratitude is a minute-by-minute challenge. She meets it, every time. Turning instead to the present, she longs for a warm bath with Epsom salts, maybe followed by a back rub from her sweetheart. “Yeah, right,” she corrects herself, and chuckles. The nurse called out tonight, so it’s another all-nighter in her son’s room. It’s time to get online and process all the requests that came in today. Marge sponsors an online community support group that links local events and resources with families who have children with special health care needs. No one pays her for any of her hard work. She does it because she cares to act from her heart upon needs that she knows, firsthand.
John throws his briefcase in the backseat and buckles up for the commute. He barely turns the corner when his phone rings–the answering service. No time to relax his mind, the call lasts through his drive to the evening meeting. A volunteer for fifteen years now, he serves on several boards and committees of community organizations that work to improve services for people in the community. He finds time in the week to care for his own health, and goes out of his way for his family and community, all while working full-time in a caregiving profession. He is tired at the end of each day, but grateful. “It could be so much worse,” he often says when he’s mentally and emotionally processing the week’s challenges with his wife on Saturday mornings. “Really. We are blessed.” He believes it.
Craig throws his cigarette on the ground and turns the ball of his shoe over it twice. “Damn. That was my last one,” he mumbles. He pulls his coat collar up around his neck to brace against the cold wind and heads toward the subway. From behind the next corner a homeless man steps out—suddenly square in front of him.
“Buddy, can you spare a dollar?,” he asks, his hand outstretched. His clothes are crumpled and filthy. His eyes look crazed. His face is wrinkled and roughened by weather and age. . . and alcohol. He reeks of it, Craig notes.
“Hell, no, man, get outta my face.” Craig moves on. “Not ’til hell freezes over,” he mumbles to himself.
What is it? What good is it? Is it worth it? Why are some more compassionate than others? Can we become more compassionate, and if so, how? Many questions surround the issue of compassion. Today, February 20, 2015, I join the ranks of over a thousand bloggers bringing compassion to the forefront. We’ve banded together under the hashtag 1000Speak to impact the world with compassion awareness. All around the globe, you’ll find bloggers exploring the subject. We hope this is the start of new explosion of compassion in this thirsty world. The power of collective consciousness: thousands, millions, perhaps billions of people, all thinking and pursuing compassion at once! What an amazing wave of energy for good in the world. Here is my offering, may it be a good little drop in the sea!
What is compassion?
More than just a feeling of empathy, compassion takes heart to action. Compassion feels along with a person who is suffering, considers a rational plan and then goes out of its way to alleviate suffering. Where heart is an emotion of concern, compassion carries heart’s mission to the brain, hands and feet.
What good is it?
Many intuitively believe that being compassionate is worthwhile. All they need to do is imagine a world where no one ever modeled compassion. Life would be marked by self-seeking behavior, combative relationships and despair. The thought alone is enough to stir the intuitives to action!
For those who need more than intuition and imagination, science supports the benefits of compassion. Studies show that compassion reduces stress levels. Compassion yields healthier physical conditions and healthier relationships. Communities prosper and thrive where compassionate organizations intervene.
That’s not to suggest, though, that there are not shortcomings for the compassionate. Physicians (closely followed by other health care workers) are more likely to suffer burnout than any other profession. All around us, compassionate people quietly give their own lives to save others.
The powerful lessons of compassionate role models throughout history are immeasurable. Though far from being an historian, I can name a few. First, there’s my personal favorite, Jesus, who stood up for the oppressed, the weak, the ill and the hungry, and inspired countless others to do the same, though it cost him his life at a very young age (one example, here: http://biblehub.com/matthew/9-36.htm). Multiple and nameless laypersons generated significant and lasting changes in compassionate living during the middle ages (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/14224/12.03.02.html?sequence=1). More recent role models include Mahatma Gandhi , who dedicated his life to liberating his countrymen (and women) through nonviolent protest (http://www.biography.com/people/mahatma-gandhi-9305898#fight-for-indian-liberation), Mother Teresa carving the way for countless orphans, poor and sick worldwide (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa) and the 14th Dalai Lama with his emphasis on liberating his people and increasing happiness through compassion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/14th_Dalai_Lama).
Who has been a model of compassion for you? Maybe it is someone as close as your father, mother, a grandparent, aunt or uncle. Perhaps it was an elementary school teacher, neighbor, pastor or community leader. Most anyone we meet can name someone, whether current, historical or even a fictional, whose example of compassion serves to inspire them, to believe the world can be a better place, and to try to make a difference.
Compassion has the power to reduce suffering in this world, resulting in happier and healthier living. In short, people with compassion are happier– and the world around them is, too.
Why are some more compassionate than others?
Be it nature or nurture, or the combination, some folks just don’t seem to care. Why? Are some personality types more compassionate than others? Can stress or failure push a person over the edge to burnout and hardness? Did male conditioning (hunter/warrior) fail to support compassion as opposed to female conditioning (gatherer/nurturer)? Did societal conditioning (religion, ethnic barriers, ancient rivalries) play a part? Is there a difference in their brain structures or chemistry?
Experts continue to examine underlying causes and contributing factors to the human psyche, behavior and culture. Using functional MRI of the brain, scientists are able to specify regions of the brain involved in compassion, and demonstrate higher levels of activation of these areas in pre- and post-trials working on compassion (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001897).
There is a place for self-examination, soul-searching and meditation, but (and science supports this, too) focusing too much on self is no way to improve it. An essential part of growth is insight, receiving comfort and practicing self-compassion (http://www.self-compassion.org/). We can inquire, examine, and consider factors that contribute to our insensitivity and inaction, but placing blame and feeling sorry for ourselves does not a compassionate life make. Are we stuck in being the way we were/are? Is there a way to become more compassionate? This leads us to our next, and probably more important questions:
Can compassion be cultivated?
Research coming from some of the finest universities says yes. Several studies support the notion that people can improve their ability to sense, attend to, and take practical action to meet other people’s needs. In one study, participants were tested on altruistic behaviors and their brain’s neural responses to suffering, both before and after receiving a short course of compassion training. Significant changes were noted in both. (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/20/0956797612469537.abstract) In another, participants in a mindfulness meditation exercise showed a much greater tendency to respond with compassion upon seeing a person in pain than those who did not participate in the guided meditation (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/meditation_causes_compassionate_action. Another recent random-controlled trial examined the cultivation of three forms of compassion: having compassion for others, receiving compassion from others and having self-compassion. Their findings show strong support for the efficacy of Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z/fulltext.html).
Old science thought that brain tissue did not regenerate. Then an amazing discovery was made: Neuroplasticity. We now know that injured brain does work to recover, to reroute pathways that are injured. For an interesting read on the subject, check out “The Brain that Changes Itself,” by Norman Doidge, M.D.
How can we cultivate compassion?
For the scientific, business-oriented and organized minded, there are professional compassion trainers! Using various methods such as meditation, guided discussions among dyads, or compassion-focused therapy, these professionals can design personal or company-wide programs to facilitate growth in compassion.
For the intuitive, spiritually-minded and faith-based folks, processes such as meditation, reflection and self-improvement are second nature. For you, it may be important to balance all of that touchy-feely stuff with practical, rational strategies to make a positive difference in the world. Let’s begin to think about what we can do that will make the most sense and be the most useful.
Is it giving the dollar, a meal or a blanket to the homeless guy on the corner? Is it calling the local food bank to donate the extra oranges from your back yard tree? Some will even come pick them for you. Is it supporting the local homeless outreach that not only feeds but also provides housing, mental health supports, clothing, job training and placement services and gradual transition support into independent living?
Maybe you’re already dedicating your life to a cause such as helping the homeless, prison outreach, community improvement projects, or some other worthy cause, yet there are some people you work with that frustrate you to no end. Are there home or work relationships that always seem to challenge your sense of compassion? Is there a way you can increase your way of relating to those people, envisioning yourself in their shoes, asking them questions, listening to their perspectives, perhaps even hosting a compassion training team to your business? Sometimes the hardest place to be compassionate is with the people closest to us, yet these are the people who need this kind of authentic love for daily sustenance.
For me, growing in compassion has been a process throughout life. My deepest renewal times have been spiritual, in relationship with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I’ve found compassion in this relationship; the sort that is much more than an intellectual assent to the concept. This relationship feeds and nourishes my intellect but also my heart. I’ve received comfort and mercy from God for my deepest wounds and most heinous mistakes. I’ve enjoyed the bliss and the pain of cooperating with Him as He urges me to slow down, listen, feel and reach out with compassion for myself as well as for those around me. There was a time I did not know I could become anything good, and people around me would not have thought so, either. I was blessed to have a chance to look to God and He gracefully replied:
I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.
-Ezekiel 36:26, New Living Translation
Renewal. Transformation. Becoming compassionate, love in action. It can happen for any, no matter your personality type, your station in life, your religion or lack thereof. Both business-types and intuitive-types can work in complementary harmony, like the right and left sides of our brains. Together, we can make a difference in this world. We can nurture and develop into more compassionate people, and become role models for others in passing the torch.
Thanks for reading, and if you like it, share it!
©Joan T. Warren
Here are a few links to further nourish these compassion thoughts: