Compassion: the feeling that arises in response to another’s suffering that motivates a desire to help (Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010)
I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion lately. I don’t know the exact moment this word started bouncing around my brain, but my reaction to a few things a couple of weeks certainly planted the seed. The first was Michelle Obama’s speech a few weeks ago – her vulnerability and strength had me in tears and unleashed a lot of pure frustration. The next was a post in a politically-oriented Facebook group: a picture of a car sticker showing two cartoon people shaded in with flags, with the Confederate flag person kicking the Pride flag person. In response, a friend had posted the opposite scenario (this time, the kick involved flames). It happened to be coincident with an image I saw of the same cartoon people, with the Pride person hugging the Confederate person. It captured my frustration over the ramping up of angry, me-versus-you, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong, I’m-good-and-you’re-bad arguments and debates, and got me thinking about how to stop that cycle. Also thrown in there was a friend’s very authentic post about his desire to let go of his Trump-supporting Facebook friends, which got me thinking about the pros and cons of debate and discourse and how our connected world helps and harms that communication.
Why did the word “compassion” come to mind? For me, it represents an openness – an understanding that this other person has a point of view and a story. The definition above, though, mentions suffering. If someone has a different world view that leads them to a different opinion than mine, how is this suffering?
I think, lately, it’s not the differences of opinion that we’re debating. It’s deeper – it’s how we choose to transmit our worldview to our fellow human beings. I think that the extreme anger and fear that has been uncovered and tapped into has driven this difference.
When we feel threatened, the primitive part of our brain takes over – it’s that fight-or-flight response that was really important when we were under life-threatening circumstances (run or get attacked by a tiger; fight or lose your territory). It’s the same part of the brain that tells three-year-olds to throw temper tantrums, moose to charge, snakes to bite. It’s pure emotion for the sole purpose of protecting us from danger. Unfortunately, it thinks that our industrialized life is full of danger and kicks in even when we don’t really need protection (sweaty palms before a speech, a wavering voice during a difficult conversation – or avoiding the difficult conversation to begin with). When we feel threatened by a different perspective or something we don’t understand, we flee or fight – and in a feedback loop, this usually causes more stress and anger and threat. While our primitive brain misinterprets anger and stress and fear as dire situations, our more advanced brain is trying to process the emotions and ascribe reason – and in the absence of a complete understanding of the situation, fills in the gaps and makes up stories. It tries to find a source in the easiest place possible – “I feel threatened because this is an important group of people and I might trip over my words and mess up and be labeled a failure” – rather than digging deeper to “my primitive brain is trying to protect me from judgment and rejection with no evidence that either will happen – it’s easier to play it safe and assume it will rather than risk it.”
I think, then, that compassion leads to acknowledging that we are all “suffering” from this slightly misdirected protection mechanism, which makes our reaction to threats seem irrational at times, and in the worst cases dials into illogical, immoral, or unethical conclusions about the source of the threat. This subconscious lack of awareness—the lack of ability to question the reason behind what we’re feeling or even know that one exists—is dangerous. We’re a culture of suppressing feelings and ascribe value —good feelings and bad feelings that imply good person and bad person—instead of naming them and talking about them and appreciating them as constant companions as we go through life. When we do talk about fear and anger, it’s easier and more acceptable to put ourselves in a victim position. There has to be a reason: a group to blame, circumstances to blame, a leader to blame. Our primitive brain is trying to find a lion in the bush instead of admitting we’re scared or angry for a deeper reason because otherwise we judge ourselves for feeling these “bad” feelings.
Having compassion is not finding a space where you agree with or condone the actions of someone. It is not giving them an excuse to act horribly. It is not, to quote a Facebook comment in response to the photo I mentioned above, “hugging your abuser.” It is also not putting everyone else before you and not acknowledging when someone else’s viewpoints are so different than your own to the point of irreconcilability or not expecting compassion in return. But it is remembering that on the other side is a person with this primitive part of their brain. A person coming from a completely different perspective and life story, whom you may never truly understand and may in fact be, at the extreme, a terrible human being, but who has the essence of what it takes to be human, primitive brain and all. A person who may have pushed their anger and fear over something they can’t quite put their finger on so deep, that it has festered and gone bad, rotting into an anger and fear over a group of people, a leader, or a circumstance. A blind anger and fear that completely overrides the ability to see another side or even name the true underlying cause of the emotion.
For me, it is really hard to understand how Trump supporters can overlook the true evil that he is and vote for him, anyway. Their willingness to overlook the despicable things he says and stands for completely invalidates the status of the people he insults – and the list is long, pretty much including everyone but white men. I would argue, and I have to dig deep to say this, that there is anger and fear that is only being acknowledged by Trump. It is totally misplaced and misguided – it’s tapping into that primitive part of our brains, into the rotten anger that blinds us rather than the underlying cause. But in a crazy way, he’s the only one saying “it’s okay to be angry and scared.” The fact that he says “it’s okay to be angry and scared because you’re being attacked by immigrants and leaders who want to take your guns [as a proxy for lifestyle] away” is that attempt to find an “easy” explanation (and play psychological games with his supporters). For the most part, everyone else is telling them that there’s nothing to be angry or scared about. Having your feelings invalidated is the epitome of disrespect. It’s what I feel when the man running for the most important job in the entire world says he can treat me like an object. I can’t speak to the other groups currently being targeted, but I can only imagine and project that they would share this feeling when they’re told they’re nothing but a group of racists, a group of terrorists, a group of drug addicts and killers, a group of immoral and disgusting people. It is a kick in the gut. It shakes us to our cores.
It’s exhausting to “go high when they go low.” It’s exhausting to hold people in the light of compassion. But it’s also much more freeing. Because it’s also exhausting to hate people and to put them into a basket of deplorables, shut the lid, and hope this all goes away. That is, in fact, just my desire to direct my anger and fear at a group of people instead of searching for the underlying cause. I’m angry at the systemic sexism and racism that has been and continues to be brushed aside. I’m angry at the polarization that drives us apart when there’s so much more that connects us. I’m scared that there are problems too big and corruption too rampant and that too many people will have to die before we can look straight at our issues and figure out how to solve them without wasting time pointing fingers and calling names.
I haven’t quite figured out how, but putting my finger on what I’m truly angry and scared about means that I can act on them rather than lament over the state of things. It means I can free the energy I spend trying to convince another person that I’m right and they’re wrong or hate them into addressing the underlying issues. For me, I hope that can turn into a way of helping people, empowering people, promoting ways of solving problems rather than focusing on whom to blame for my anger and fear. It’s saying, “It’s okay to be angry and scared” and stopping there – or perhaps adding, “and I know what it’s like and will help you explore why.”
This is the second part of the definition: wanting to help the person who is suffering. Maybe giving them a hug won’t help them. But maybe it will help to take the time to dig to the root of the anger and fear – and give each other the patience and space to do so.