The Power of Compassion

It's back, the admirable Canada of the Vietnam-war era. Fresh from winning the Canadian election and then appointing a gender-balanced cabinet, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown up the entire GOP Presidential field with regard to the Syrian refugees. In contrast to fear-mongering and bullying, Trudeau personally welcomed the first planeload of "new Canadians" from Syria, and made sure they had social insurance numbers, health cards, and winter coats.
Of course, this arrival of refugees was not only an opportunity to draw a maximum contrast with fear-driven neighbors to the south (not for the first time), but also an act of compassion. "This is a wonderful might where we get to show not just a plane load of new Canadians what Canada's all about," said Trudeau, "we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations."

How to open our hearts: how to access that part of ourselves that wants to help people, to listen to them, to imagine their life-experience, their viewpoint. Empathy is not a panacea. The practice can be done to manipulate, but it can also enlarge our comfort zones, help us learn about the world, even reach out to enemies. For example, the great commencement speech delivered at American University in 1963 by President Kennedy. Seeking peace in the Cold War, he showed empathy in portraying the Second World War as experienced by the USSR, then our war-time ally, but at the time of the speech our Cold War enemy. Specifically, JFK asked his audience to imagine what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded the U.S. as they did invade the USSR.

Here is what the President said: "No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland -- a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago."

When I visited Moscow as a "citizen diplomat" in 1986, right after the Reykjavik Summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, people were still referring to JFK's speech, which had been delivered 23 years earlier.

For me, the most recent occasion for trying to understand an experience foreign to me was writing a book called Gift of Darkness: Growing Up in Occupied Amsterdam. It's the biography of the adolescence of a Jewish boy who (unlike his schoolmate, Anne Frank) managed to survive the Nazis, and whom I met in California half a century later.

Robbert and I were worlds apart. He was born in Europe; I, in the U.S. His family was Jewish; mine, Lutheran. Because of the war, his last schooling had been in the seventh grade; I'd attended an Ivy League college. He had made his living as a seller of electrical goods; I, as a writer and coach to book authors. As a follower of Rudolph Steiner (founder of the Waldorf Schools), he had a spiritual life; when we met I was searching, at best.

Moreover, he suggested at the start of our project that he'd provide the facts, to which I'd somehow add "the feelings". I knew this wouldn't work, but was not then alert to the aftermath of trauma. With admirable courage he dove into the memories of his teenage years. On my part the situation was a repeated challenge to empathy, especially because I intended to piece together thousands of fragments into a vivid present-tense account.

After witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a man who had served Hitler by delivering people to be murdered, Hannah Arendt was struck by the Nazi bureaucrat's inability "to think from the standpoint of somebody else." Clearly referring to his lack of empathy, Arendt declared that "no communication was possible with him, not because he lied, but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and presence of others, and hence against reality as such." What was this "safeguard," as Arendt ironically calls it? Eichmann's inability to experience the world from any other standpoint than his bureaucratic rules.

As Paul Bloom of Yale points out, empathy can mislead well-intentioned people who might care more about a single child trapped in a well than about widespread routine suffering about which they remain uninformed or in denial. However, without the skill of empathy a person remains trapped within his or her own viewpoint, unable to understand or even notice the feelings of anybody else.

At least since Buddha, it's been no secret that while developing a self and a comfort zone in which one can accomplish the tasks of a life, the challenge is to become sensitive and helpful to other selves (learn the practice of compassion) and then to see the illusory nature of all selves.

In terms not of ethics but of openness to discovery, many of the main scientific realizations have come as a result of de-centering. Until Galileo, our ancestors assumed that the earth was the center of the universe, around which every other body rotated. Before Freud, the unconscious remained largely out of sight as compared with mentation ("I think, therefore I am"). Until Darwin, we humans stood apart from all other life-forms and did not notice the evidence for evolution.

In evolutionary terms, if our ancestors survived in part by cooperating with others, and if humans like to be heard, the skill of being able to imagine viewpoints other than our own would have had survival value. We may all be self-centered, but to varying extents we can learn the ability to understand standpoints and feelings other than our own and, on occasion, to regard our own feelings and viewpoints as limited, in need of some enlargement.

Roman Krznaric's recent book, Empathy, reminds us of the immense power of imagining other viewpoints, while it also cautions against regarding this practice as a cure-all. In 2009, Jeremy Rifkin declared that empathy could grow until it included the whole world and thus could save the world from gross misunderstanding and hostility. While fervently supporting this skill, Krznaric explicitly raises doubts about Rifkin's hope.

Perhaps nothing has a more dramatic effect than a public figure acting out of compassion rather than fear, as JFK did with regard to the USSR, as Trudeau did in welcoming the refugees, as Obama still has over a year to do. Perhaps, in the vision of Adam Hochschild, we could celebrate wise peacemakers as ardently as we have been thanking brave veterans. To the extent we do the former, in a timely way, we might not have to do as much of the latter.