This is a tough time to be compassionate. Our national conversation has devolved from a debate of ideas to a zero-sum competition fueled by contempt and personal attack. Our individual connections are being eroded by devices that keep us connected in a strange, abstract way, but deny us true human connection.
Increasingly, we are finding ourselves isolated and seeing people we disagree with as a less than human “other”, rather than simply people with ideas different than our own.
We are losing our compassion for one another.
Compassion gives us the ability to see the pain and discomfort behind the actions, feelings and ideas of others. Beyond that, we are able to experience the suffering of others as our own through empathy. Compassion connects us to the humanness of others, even when they do or say things we disagree with or don’t like.
If we as a society are to get onto a better course, and as individuals find greater, more genuine happiness, we must cultivate compassion within ourselves.
And we must teach it to our children.
Compassion is a skill that can be taught and practiced.
Typically in my articles, this would be the point where I would introduce some really interesting new research and connect it to strategies for you to use toward self-improvement and being a more effective parent.
This time, I’m going in the opposite direction. Rather than offering the latest discoveries, I will be exploring ancient wisdom—very ancient.
Whether you have deeply devout religious beliefs, are a committed atheist, or find yourself somewhere in the middle, you can probably agree that religion can be very effective at transmitting ideas not only to many people across great distances, but also across great spans of time.
You can walk into any church, synagogue or temple and learn concepts that have been taught not just for centuries, but across millennia.
The concept I am presenting today is taught by Buddhism, but actually pre-dates its 2,500 year history.
Because of its central themes of compassionate engagement with the world and meditative practices designed to increase self-awareness, Buddhism offers an extensive knowledge-base for understanding human interaction and emotion.
An important idea to Buddhism is the Four Brahmavihārā. This is translated in a few ways, but the gist is that these are the four emotions that we want to cultivate the most. If everyone cultivated these feelings and acted upon them, the world would be a much better place.
These four “highest” emotions are compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity.
Part of the Four Brahmavihārā is the idea that each of these emotions have a far enemy and a near enemy.
This article is about compassion, so let’s look at its “enemies”.
The obvious opposite of compassion is cruelty, and thus it is the far enemy of that emotion. These two feelings cannot fill the same heart. Cruelty undermines compassion and compassion crowds cruelty out.
Children can be cruel to each other. In some ways, they have to. When they play, they are learning about social rules and how others feel. They are learning how interacting with others impact the interests and desires of others and themselves. As they are learning, they will make mistakes and often these mistakes can be cruel.
So teaching children empathy helps them see things from the perspective of the kids they are playing with. Teaching children compassion helps them not only see the pain they cause others when they are cruel, but helps them feel pained by their own cruelty.
I have written about things that you can do to teach your child compassion and empathy through exercises like not saying “I’m sorry” and reducing screen time so that they increase their “face time”. I also think understanding the antagonism between cruelty and compassion is extremely helpful. You move away from one by cultivating the other.
So cruelty is the far enemy of compassion. They are opposites and in obvious conflict.
The near enemy is different.
A near enemy looks like the emotion you are trying to cultivate, but it is actually deeply corrosive to that effort.
The near enemy of compassion is pity. Pity is seeing someone else’s suffering, but seeing it in a distant, abstract way. It is pain that belongs to the other person and is not shared. In maintaining this distance, not only are you not truly connecting with the other person through empathy, pity makes it comfortable to feel above the other person.
Pity can lead away from compassion towards feelings of superiority. From superiority comes contempt. Pity looks like compassion, but it actually will drive us away from human connection.
The distinction between compassion and pity is an important one to explore for ourselves and to teach our children. I can remember throughout my childhood cruelty on the playground (the far enemy of compassion). More often than not, this cruelty was directed at kids who were somehow different from everyone else. Maybe they dressed funny or had something different about their body. Maybe they acted weird or had a strange way of talking.
Often we would learn something about a kid that explained their difference. Their family was poor, so they couldn’t afford nice clothes. They had strange skin because of a condition they were born with or a disease. They talked funny because of a hearing impairment or English was a second language for them. They acted weird because they didn’t have parents and were in a series of foster homes.
These are all examples from my own childhood. And in each situation, learning more about why the other kid was different made it more difficult to be mean. Seeing their suffering made us less likely to tease them.
In some cases, they were invited into our social circles. Compassion led us to connect with their discomfort. We didn’t just understand their suffering—we were able to relate to it. And we could not bring ourselves to add to it. Instead, because this connection was meaningful and empathetic, we wanted to deepen the connection and include them in our play.
But for other “strange” kids, learning about why they were strange only made it so we were uncomfortable with being mean. We felt no impulse to include them in our play. The empathetic connection was never made.
They became that poor kid or that kid with no parents, and they spent their time at school in isolation.
Even when we were doing activities where partners were assigned, we would recoil involuntarily, something I am sure they could see and feel.
This is pity in action. It drove us away from the far enemy of compassion, cruelty, but it did not move us towards compassion. As a result, even though we stopped being mean, we still contributed to the suffering of those kids we pitied by making them isolated.
Even if compassion hadn’t moved us to play with some of those kids, it would have at least encouraged us to be more kind.
Which brings us back to why we need more compassion these days. Compassion would not require us to agree with those who hold opposing views than us, but it would move us away from contempt and cruelty towards them as we look at things from their perspective.
And rather than pity them for their wrong views and hardships, compassion would help us experience their suffering as our own.
This is not simply a froofy, flakey, touchy-feely notion. We are each threads of the same social fabric. The suffering of others within that fabric affects us whether or not we choose to see it. Compassion helps us engage that suffering and respond to it with kindness.
When I was a kid, things were pretty rough in this country. The economy was a mess. Faith in government was at an all-time low because of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Racial tension was exploding because minorities were beginning to gain equal rights but were still experiencing extreme repression and financial disadvantage. There were way more terrorist attacks (both in the US and worldwide) during the 70s and 80s than since 2001.
And yet things feel much worse right now. A 2017 poll found that 59% of Americans think this is the worst time in US history, including people who lived through WWII, the Vietnam War and 9/11.
When I was a kid, things were pretty rough in our country and there were some deep divisions. But it was much more commonplace for people who disagreed to still get along. There was still tribalism and contempt for the “other” (I remember Jimmy Carter is stupid jokes and anti-Reagan “No Mo’Ron” bumper stickers), but we were more capable of being kind to those who held different views.
Now, we interact more through text, email and social media than we do face-to-face, stripping our connections of the empathy and humanity that is essential for compassion. And when we do have in-person interactions, we are often too rushed and too distracted by our devices to make any meaningful connection.
Through isolation and loss of compassion, we have gained contempt and despair. The times that we feel “compassion”, we are often experiencing its near enemy pity, which leaves us feeling comfortable and distant from the pain of others.
In order to heal our social fabric, we will need to engage each other in a more personal way and cultivate compassion. We will need to resist cruelty and not fall into the pity trap.
And we need to teach this to our children.
In future articles, I’ll explore how children learn compassion, as well as take a look at the near/far enemies of the remaining Brahmavihārā: loving-kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity.