Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 11, 2022 - The Heart of Compassion

It’s because of the size of our heads. Well, our brains, actually. When humans began to walk upright, the birth canal became too small to allow for full development to occur inside the womb. Human babies are born far more vulnerable than any other mammal because of it. 

That created a particular brain wiring in humans that evolution favors: co-suffering. That is to say, when we witness others feel pain, we feel it too. At least, the same parts of our brain light up as those who are actually in pain. 

Particular to this unique brain response is the desire to do something about it. We are literally wired to feel the suffering of others and take action. Even to the point of sacrificing ourselves, and sometimes even dying, for what we believe in. For what we believe in is almost always related to the care and protection of those we love. To prevent their suffering, and thereby our own. 

It all comes from the deep biological need to make sure that our particularly vulnerable offspring are instinctively cared for. When they cry, we do something. And we can’t help it.

Which explains the very particular and even borderline traumatic reaction that some people have to a baby crying on an airplane. It isn’t just because it’s a loud, relentless, piercing, (did I say relentless?) noise. It’s because it’s a noise that activates three different places in our brains to take immediate action. But on a plane, we are trapped with the sound. No action on our part is possible. 

People have a variety of responses and/or reactions to that sense of feeling trapped.

And then there is the phenomenon of getting kicked in the balls. I personally winced at the mere typing of that sentence.

Regardless of gender, we are all universally aware of the paradigm of seeing men's reactions to another man being pummeled in the groin. 

That all comes from the wiring in our species to be not just responsive, but chemically rewarded for taking action to alleviate the suffering of others. Exhibiting compassion releases dopamine and oxytocin. And that is by design. 

Now, people will debate about by whom, what, or if it was “designed.“ but we can all agree that it is the present reality. And it is an astonishing one indeed. 

If you believe in God, that’s who you might consider thanking for this truly elegant bit of engineering. But even if you don’t, there’s no denying the impressiveness of compassion as a biological trait. 

To think that we are wired to care for one another on a biological level, and that we are rewarded with good feelings for doing it, makes me very happy. It comforts me to remind myself of the fact that when it all comes down to it, we are built to heal, and to save, and to protect. Most importantly, we are wired to do something about it when we are witness to suffering.

Of course that doesn’t mean that all who witness suffering do something about it. If only that were so. But it is operating contrary to the wiring when we don’t. I have a hard time believing there are not long-term consequences, namely chemical, for operating on a regular basis in opposition to our wiring. 

The word compassion literally means “to suffer together.” There is a sacrifice built into that reality. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, when we suffer over someone else’s suffering, we are still suffering. Even if it’s over someone else’s. It is a moment in the absence of joy. And I believe, with every molecule of my being, that we were meant for joy.

Pay attention to what you’re wiring is asking of you. There are rewards in it for you. It will literally make you feel good. At the very least, better. And in times such as these, better is a heck of a lot more than some are fortunate to experience.

Remember your compassion when it comes time to helping those who are fleeing or rebuilding from war and disaster. Only greater unity can come from it. 

We are built to thrive in the presence of compassion. Embody it in any small way you can in your life. I know for a fact it will change you to make a point of tickling your brain wiring with deliberate acts of compassion. 

That is your charge. 

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