"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Saturday, October 24, 2015

How Deep Is the Well of Compassion?

     Does a person who has experienced personal difficulties develop more sympathy for others, or does the very fact of surmounting those difficulties make a person less sympathetic toward people in a similar situation?

     That was the question asked in the New York Times last week by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In an article called "The Funny Thing About Adversity" he analyses the varying and sometimes unpredictable human reactions to adversity.

     Think of the stereotypical self-made man or woman. They often think that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so other people should be able to do the same, if only they worked harder or studied more or had more self-discipline. Or consider the abused child, who then as an adult goes on to abuse their own children. But then think of the person who's survived a serious illness. They often join a support group, help others get treatment, raise money for the cause.

     Are some people just naturally more sympathetic, while others are hard-hearted and self-absorbed?

     No, says DeSteno. The answer is not in our hearts so much as it's in our self-interest. "Compassion isn't as purely selfless as it might seem," he concludes after years of study. While it might, in part, be a genuine response to the suffering of others, "It is also a strategy for regaining your own footing -- for resilience in the face of trauma. After all, having strong social relationships is one of the best predictors of psychological well-being, and so anything that enhances your bonds with others -- like expressing compassion for them -- makes you more resilient."

     He and a colleague conducted several experiments, and they concluded in general people who experienced adversity in life -- who were a victim of violence or a natural disaster, or who lost a loved one -- were more likely to empathize with others in trouble. They felt more compassion for victims, and donated more money or were more likely to help out victims.

     The wrinkle in the equation comes when people encounter someone who has suffered the exact same hardship as they did. Then they show less compassion. Why? According to DeSteno the answer is because people remember their past problems with a fuzzy lens. The problems are recalled as less distressing than they actually were. And therefore people don't appreciate just how difficult the challenge is for other people.

     So, for example, people who had been bullied earlier in life felt less compassion for the victims of bullying -- although they felt more compassion for the unemployed. Meanwhile, people who had previously gone through a period of unemployment felt less sympathy for people currently unemployed, but felt plenty of compassion for victims of bullying.

     What do you think about this? Does it make sense?

     In my case, I have a history of cancer in my family. Both my parents died of cancer; but they were old. My older brother died of cancer in 1964, when he was 23 years old.

     One of my daughter's best friends came down with the same kind of cancer when she was in college. But now, almost 50 years later, the friend was cured. At first, I found myself resenting this girl. It just wasn't fair. Then one day my daughter brought her friend over to the house. I saw how the girl had lost weight and was wearing a wig to cover her bald head. And I didn't resent her anymore. I felt sympathy and compassion.

     Even so, to this day, when I hear of an acquaintance who gets some kind of cancer, my first reaction is relief. Better them than me. Like the soldier whose comrade gets shot, and feels relief that it wasn't him. But then, when I face the reality, I feel plenty of compassion. Which is why I try to do the cancer walk every year.

     There's another element to it, I think. The closer to home the problem, the more it disturbs us. If someone we know in town dies, it's sad. If someone in our own family dies it's devastating. But when a hundred people are blown up in Africa or the Middle East, we may not even hear about it, and if we do, it perhaps only registers as a sad shake of the head.

     Maybe there's only so much compassion to go around. Still, I think we all need more of it.


Olga said...

Very thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a tricky subject. Everywhere we go people old and young help us with this and that. I've managed to have several of the younger people admit they help because, "Someday I will need help." I have no problem letting someone help me, David does. I tell him you help the other person feel better if you let them help you.

I especially like it when people help me with my dogs!

The instinct for Reciprocity is built into all normal people according to most Social Scientists. I think Autism must mean one is missing this aspect of personality....like Doc Martin. A teacher friend of mine swears he has Aspergers.

Anonymous said...

I donate money to worthy charities every year. To me, that's enough.

Jane said...

I somewhat disagree. I have deep respect for those who have worked hard to achieve something and I also try to give a helping hand. I live alone and am the first with calls, cards and casseroles. This is largely due to my fear of living with cats:) ...self interest, in other words.

There is so much tragedy in the world, it's easy to be overwhelmed.

Lastly, it grates on me to hear "I beat cancer" as if others wimped out.

DJan said...

Very interesting and thought provoking post. I have had my share of tragedy in my life but don't dwell on it, and I find that when someone else experiences the same event, I am sympathetic but not overly so. I cut them quite a it of slack, because I know that everybody deals with loss differently. I was dismissed from jury duty once because of being an obvious bleeding-heart liberal. :-)

Florence said...

It seems every 5 minutes there is some worthy cause that wants me to donate. I'm not Bill Gates so I set an amount that I can give per month. I like to do my part without feeling overwhelmed.

stephen Hayes said...

I want to be a compassionate person, but I limit my exposure to the news because I can only handle so much misery.

Anonymous said...

I so disagree with the article on compassion..I volunteer for a food pantry and domestic violence shelter all the time, what I see pretty much sums up what I think, how can the richest country in the world allow people to starve and how can a country that says it cares about women allow domestic violence to occur so often? The news reported a big round up of d/v men and women they took them to jail promptly I was happy as hell to see that, it told the public you can run but you cannot hide..I think people who harm others deserve the 7th level of hell on earth I do and when I ask my friends to help me get food for the hungry and they own homes that are like mansions and drive %80,000 cars they are kind and loving to me, they see what it is like to starve for food, yet the people work and don't make enough for food for themselves they feed their wives, gal friends, children and boyfriends first in the greatest country in the world! My parents both immigrants never starved like they do today mostly immigrants, no they did not, it must be a west coast thing, as my parents lived in NYC and found jobs, citizenship classes, learned to speak English and were treated well, the west coast they say has no memory well I tell you I have seen everything, worse drought in 150 years many people lost jobs, no ski season no crops, oh, my goodness sakes and no jobs, one cannot eat the beauty of the land, it is getting cold, windy and raining and soon snow and ice (hopefully) it is mighty difficult to work like crazy on no food..I think compassion is treating your fellow man as you would want to be treated plain and simple, our former presiden Jimmy Carter stated "How can you say you are a Christian or whatever religion you espouse to and let people starve" what a man he is of compassion!

Anonymous said...

I meant to say $80,000 cars and lovely homes the people who help me get protein food and nice things for the holidays, it is just ingrained into my psche. My parents always fed people and listened to their troubles and tried to help them..They did not back away from being sweet and kind and loving, I like to think it taught me great compassion for other human beings, that is the way I roll, must run lots to bake and get ready for the pantry, birthday day for the month of rocktober as I call October.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

My compassion for others often rides on their own attitude and belief. I have trouble being compassionate to those who are always in some sort of funk or another.

Like a friend who has a myriad of health problems. I've tried to help her but she does not do as the doctor advises nor does she do things that could make her better, like eat a healthy diet and get exercise. My compassion has run out for her.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Tom! I find myself -- both as a friend and as a psychotherapist -- occasionally beset with compassion fatigue, usually when I'm with someone who is making no effort to help himself or herself despite the assistance of others and who simply expects others to do for them with no gratitude or motivation to work toward change in their own lives.

I have a neighbor who is seriously ill -- has kidney failure and is getting dialysis three times a week. It's very hard on her. But she eats everything she isn't supposed to, saying she'll just take extra binders, and expects neighbors to drive her to and sit and talk with her through dialysis -- a commitment of about five hours of another person's time -- because she doesn't like to wait for the medical van, at most a 15 minute wait, and she likes people to keep her entertained throughout her dialysis treatment, though other patients in the same facility watch t.v.,listen to music, read or nap through their treatments. I volunteered to drive and entertain her several times a month for the first three years. Then her bad-mouthing of other drivers, malicious gossip, eating in a way that exacerbated her medical challenges and her sense of entitlement just got to me. So I no longer drive her, though she tells me with great regularity that I need to "step up to the plate" and drive her again. She is married and has children -- and so is not someone who is alone in life. So like dkzody, I've run out of compassion for this particular person.

I think that growing up in an abusive home has given me compassion for others who are living with difficulties, with mental illness and the like, although I think I do feel some impatience -- whether I express it overtly or not -- in a few, very specific situations when someone uses a difficult past as an excuse not to move forward. I realize that not everyone can move past a difficulty, that some people are truly broken by life, mental illness, addiction and the like. But when someone who could improve his or her life, even a little, actively chooses not to, I feel a wave of compassion fatigue.

Wisewebwoman said...

Interesting blogpost. I find it easier to feel compassion when F2F or knowing the complete story.

I'll tell you when I find it difficult. My next door neighbour who has treated me incredibly badly over the years, (rude, demanding, belittling and never asked me a question unless it related to herself) is terminal and has moved to a pre-hospice home. And I couldn't raise a whit of sympathy. And guilt flooded me and I tried. And I couldn't honestly give a good god-damn about her. A friend invited me to her farewell from the community party as L--- had told her I was a "close" friend. Imagine. I couldn't, even though I recognised that L--- must have been incredibly lonely (with reason) if she classified me as "friend".

I still feel deficient for some reason.