Saturday, July 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 18, 2020 - The Physics of Compassion

About what or whom do you feel compassionate? Compassion literally means to “
co-suffer,” which sounds a lot like empathy, when you think about it. Different from empathy, however, though still closely related, compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Empathy is the ability to perceiveBy and sometimes even feel another’s suffering. But where empathy feels, compassion acts. It must.

One important facet of compassion is in how it differs from the concept known as altruism. Altruism as a concept is a bit of a fabrication, actually, of 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte. He was looking to create a word that could serve as a good opposite to the word egoism, which is itself a word to describe those who only think of themselves. But the opposite of thinking only of oneself can’t be about thinking of everyone but oneself. Because there‘s actually never a time when we don’t think of ourselves. We’re always aware of how we fit into a situation and how we will either be benefited or harmed. Even when we’re doing something for someone else. And we’re constantly striving to feel good. That is our permanent inner directive, feeling good. When we do good deeds, we feel good. That’s a benefit. And it’s one which can’t be discounted.

When M. Comte created the concept of altruism he was mistaken. His concept does not exist. Not that goodness doesn’t exist, but I mean to say altruism, as it’s creator intended it and as it’s defined, does not. And his word has only served to muddy the waters and make compassionate action seem even harder to accomplish because it mistakenly gives us the impression that we’re not supposed to benefit in any way, even to feel good. We are to be selfless. That’s the advice. That’s the standard being set with regard to serving others. That bar is not just too high, it’s a fantasy.

And knowing that, knowing that a false ideal has been placed into our moral universe, we can let it go. Because we matter in the equation of our service to others. If we are to co-suffer we should also have earned the right to be co-inspired, co-joyful, and co-relieved by helping another. That is the only way compassion functions. Compassion is a co-experience with a personal benefit we can’t separate from the whole. Good! By the philosopher’s ideal, any time you take pleasure from helping another person, you’re no longer being an altruist. Which amounts to a judgment against you feeling good. “He’s not really an altruist, he liked it.“

Let’s release that. Even if you don’t consciously think that way, it is in there. This idea is written into the mission statements of thousands of nonprofits and community service organizations. Because even though we don’t realize it, that unrealistic human aspiration subtly impacts our ability to be of genuine service to the world. And whether or not you’re a religious person makes no difference to whether or not you’re influenced by the larger society who tells you that you should only give without wanting and serve without needing. I think there’s a backlash to that. I fear it only has the ability to infect a culture with the belief that since they can’t live up to these lofty ideals they might as well grab what they can for themselves regardless of how it might impact others. For what’s the point in caring about others if we’re not allowed to care about ourselves? Why, don’t we count?

The fact is, we do. We count very much. The sacred advice they’re alluding to in their desire to accomplish selfless good in the world is a caution to make sure that what you do for your own state of goodness should never impinge upon the state of goodness of another. But as well, the actions you take to feel good can also, if not careful, follow the old aphoristic idea that ‘weakness is merely strength in excess.’ We can do so much of a good thing that it becomes harmful to us. That’s true for everything from potato chips to philanthropy. That’s where the advice to be selfless comes from: Our fear that if we give permission to feel good, no real good will come of it. We will just overdo it and mess it up. But that’s a lie. Even if a well-intentioned one. Don’t buy it.

Because science has now repeatedly shown us that doing good for others is extremely beneficial to our selves. There are endless scientific studies showing evidence of the health benefits of compassionate action such as reducing the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus nerve, it makes us more resilient to stress and strengthens our immune systems, it increases our ability to socialize, and countries who make it a habit to help their most vulnerable are statistically proven to be the happiest. Shouldn’t that matter? It would almost seem that some have concluded God’s only happy when we aren’t. Does that make sense?

Still, we should check our motivations. It’s always important to know why we are doing something and for whom we are doing it. Because sometimes we’re playing at compassion and using it as a smokescreen (even from ourselves) to support behavior that harms us. When we put others before ourselves, harm occurs. When we put ourselves before others, harm occurs. When we make ourselves equal to others, compassion occurs.

I think one of the most astonishing observations I found in my research on this topic was in the tactics shown to cultivate compassion in ourselves and others. We can actually make more compassion in the world by modeling it. Because compassionate action is a learned behavior. And research shows it’s contagious. Did you know that if you tap your finger at the same time as a stranger it increases compassionate behavior in ourselves? How does that happen? I don’t know how they proved it, but it aligns with the other things we’ve learned about engaging in group activities and how they impact our mental state. Doing things with and for others changes us in profound and positive ways.

And though we can’t see or taste compassion, and we definitely don’t understand it, we can still use it. We can’t see the wind, but we can see the leaves moving within it. We can use our observation of the leaves to conclude that there is power moving them. A force we might choose to participate in ourselves. We can take what we learn from the leaves and then build a sail for our boat. The leaves show us that the wind has physics. Even if we don’t always understand it.

Through science we can see that compassion, too, has physics. It has replicable outcomes and predictable opportunities for taking the best advantage of what compassion has to offer as a life practice. We may not fully understand this wind, but we can allow it to be at our back, guiding our forward movement to occur with greater ease and purpose. We can take the oars out of the water for a while and just allow the momentum of the wind to carry us where it wishes us to go. Be free within it.

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