In a recent conversation with friends, the topic of lack of compassion for the pain and suffering of others arose. We were pondering over the sad idea that there is such a disconnect of conscience that folks hurt each other intentionally. That can take the form of domestic violence which scars people emotionally and physically, to institutional and governmental abuses that rend lives on a global basis.
Diane E. Levin, professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College in Boston, uses a term “Compassion Deficit Disorder” to describe children who lack empathy and express their needs through bullying and other forms of violence. She expresses that technology is a contributing factor, as young people are more plugged in to electronics than to each other. One solution, she finds, is to create or re-create bonds between people and distance from the wires and chips that animate screens.
CDD seems to go far deeper than that and its onset dates back eons. From the moment one human being viewed someone as ‘other’ and therefore a threat and pinned with the label of ‘enemy,’ compassion became a scarce commodity.
One definition of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
It may seem a simple thing to offer loving words and exhibit caring action to those in our intimate circles of family and friends, since they feel like a part of us. When someone we love is in pain, we feel compelled to alleviate it. When they stumble and fall, we want to pick them up. When they are lost in the morass of mental illness, we seek solutions to help them find their way into the light. The challenge arises when we allow apathy to overcome empathy. Those we see as the enemy see us in that same way. In my area, there are signs on people’s lawns that say, “Drive like your children live here.” What if we each lived not only like the wellbeing our own loved ones were of paramount importance, but those in other communities, who don’t fit our standards of being ‘like us.’?
The concept of mirror neurons came to the fore when scientists studied macaque monkeys and the ways in which their cells reacted in synch with the actions of other monkeys. Monkey see, monkey do, monkey feel, indeed. The researchers extrapolated their observations to human interaction in such a way that has us walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins.
A Lesson in Ubuntu
The idea of compassion for others is intricately woven into the African concept of Ubuntu. The word emerges from the Bantu language and is beautifully described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.”
No person is an island unto themselves and as such, is inextricably bound, one to another. What we do to another, we ultimately do to ourselves. Therein lies a challenge. Today, I spoke with a young woman whose self -disparaging attitudes and words were anything but self- compassionate. She referred to herself as ‘lazy’. I asked her if she would describe someone who held down two jobs and had picked up yet a third source of income, who helped her mother and brothers financially, who was on call for her friends 24/7 in that way. Of course, her answer was no, as she laughed and cried simultaneously. I asked her to explore developing a self -compassionate persona that could stand up to the judgmental tyrant who was her harshest critic. She agreed to do that. I also asked her how she could possibly offer true compassion for others if she didn’t hold herself in that same esteem. She didn’t have an answer. Nor do I when I find myself in the same position. There are times when I judge myself harshly when I don’t meet my often-unreasonable standards for performance or beliefs. I need to heed my own sound advice and turn on the compassion faucet. Sometimes it means reaching out to friends who affirm my worthiness. Often it involves doing a reality check.
An icon who embodies compassion is His Holiness the Dalai Lama who I had the blessing of interviewing on July 17th, 2008. He had come to Philadelphia to speak and I was one of two journalists in the Philadelphia area to have an audience with him on that day.
I had asked him this question, “You speak a great deal about compassion. It seems easy to have compassion for those we feel are like ourselves. When faced with those whose values feel different or even threatening, how can we allow for that same type of understanding?”
This was his poignant response (I kept the syntax intact as he delivered the answer). “Basically, there are not much differences. They also want happy life. Their method is different. On secondary level, always differences. Faith differences, culture differences, racial differences. Even within one person, yesterday and today, there are differences. We must look at a deeper level. I feel many problems that we are facing, are man-made problems, we have too much emphasis on this secondary thing, forgetting our foundation. At foundation, we are the same human being and we are sharing the same planet. Six billion human beings’ future is my future and my future is never separate from the future of six billion human beings. Those people, whose early life, due to lack of affection, always have suspicion and distrust and always remain distant. They never open their heart to other people. I met an American lady many years ago, much distant. Then I told her about my own difficult experiences and I showed some genuine concern. She responded, "Why are you so concerned about me?" We need more patience. At a fundamental level, we are the same human brothers and sisters. Then forget it. The human mind is very strange.“
In the Lakota language, Mitakuye-Oyasin (pronounced mi-TAHK-wee-a-say or Mee-tah-koo-yay Oy-yah-seen) translates to “We are all related or All are related.” May we constantly be reminded.