The role of compassion
We all know what it is like to suffer. We have all experienced, to greater or lesser degrees, the torment and anguish of unrelieved pain. When we were in that state, we desperately wanted those around us to do everything they could to remove our pain. Yet we have also experienced situations in which we have failed to act to alleviate the suffering of others — even when we knew there was something we could have done. How can this be? How is it that we failed to act?
What seems to have been lacking is the emotion of compassion. The motivation to act, the thing that propels us to do something, springs from our feelings, rather than mere intellectual understanding. It is only when we feel for ourselves something of the pain that others are feeling — imagining what it is like to be in their shoes — that we become motivated to alleviate their suffering. Compassion is the engine that drives altruism. As Ian McEwan put it in the days after 9/11:
“If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. . . . Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and it is the beginning of morality.” — The Guardian, September 13th, 2001.
Is compassion possible?
One might, however, question the possibility of compassion. For instance, it could be argued that when we are motivated to help others, our ultimate goal is to relieve the empathetic pain that we feel, rather than the pain of others. Helping others to recover from their suffering is simply the means, not the end. But then it follows that acting out of compassion — as distinct from mere self-interest—is a psychological impossibility.
There are a number of confusions in this objection, but sorting them out will help us to clarify how compassion works.
Seeing other people who are in pain, and feeling something of what they are going through, can be very distressing. Indeed, there are times when our own distress is so overwhelming that our attention becomes focused almost entirely on the pain we are feeling. The pain of the other person is pushed into the margins of our awareness. We are instinctively driven to concentrate on removing whatever pain is in the forefront of our consciousness. And since, in this situation, that will be the pain we are feeling, alleviating our own distress will become our priority.
Now this self-interested motivation could (and often does) lead us to try and remove the suffering of the other person. But when our own distress is the focus, we will usually do so in a way that is insensitive to what they actually need. For example, we bluntly tell them to ‘get over it’. We accuse them of being ‘too sensitive’ or of ‘over-exaggerating’ their pain. We might even pressure them to ‘cut their losses’ and forgive. Another way of alleviating our distress is to walk away. For example, we might try to find some entertaining distraction to help us forget about the suffering we have witnessed. Out of sight, out of mind. And it’s not difficult to come up with any number of rationalisations to justify our lack of action. For example:
- ‘It is none of my business.’
- ‘I’ve worked hard for my money. It’s not my fault they are poor.’
- ‘They brought it on themselves — it will teach them a lesson.’
- ‘He must have known it was a dangerous line of work.’
What is interesting about these examples is that most of us can easily distinguish them from what we would ordinarily call ‘compassion’. So we must have some experience of a reality with which to compare these pretenders. If so, the objection above is not so much a question about whether compassion is possible. We know that it is because we have experienced it, along with its absence. Rather the question is: how can compassion be possible? More precisely, how is it possible for us to regulate the focus that we place on our own distress? How can we shift the balance of our attention from ourselves to others? What makes it possible for us to move our own pain to the margins of our consciousness, so that the pain of others can take centre stage?
Increasing our capacity for compassion
For most of us, this shift in the balance of attention will not come naturally or easily. Aside from the occasional ‘moral hero’, we are more inclined to focus on ourselves, even at the best of times. So this outward focus will require a great deal of effort and determination. In particular, it will mean adopting the strategies below:
1. Separate their pain from our own.
We need to differentiate between our own feelings of distress and the pain that is being experienced by the person for whom we feel empathy. Confusing the two is partly what leads us to focus on our own pain and forget that someone else is hurting. It’s as if we imagine that we are the only one suffering in this situation. The person for whom we feel empathy is no more than an obstacle in the way of our own pain relief. We might even think of them as the cause of our suffering. Were it not for their suffering, we would not feel so distressed!
2. Focus on the disparity between our feelings and theirs.
It is crucial to remember that when we experience empathy, we are only a mirror — not the reality. What we are feeling is only a reflection of someone else’s lived experience, not our own. Yes, these ‘mirror feelings’ are uncomfortable and disturbing. But they are usually not a patch on the real thing. Empathy does not replicate every detail or dimension of another person’s thoughts and feelings. When we witness another person in pain, we do not experience exactly the same quality or degree of suffering. If we can keep our minds fixed on this disparity, it will be harder to prioritise the alleviation of our own distress.
3. Where necessary, tend to our own wounds first.
It is likely that we can feel empathy when we see others in pain only because this triggers memories of our own painful experiences. The problem is that, in some cases, witnessing the suffering of another person may evoke memories of pain that, while similar, are even more severe than the pain we are observing. For example, we might see a parent lightly smacking a child; but then find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions that spring from the far more violent and cruel beatings we experienced in our own childhood. In such a case, there are two things we can do: First, we need to follow the first strategy above and separate our own pain from the pain of the other person, so that the two are not confused. Second, we need to be honest with ourselves. If our own remembered pain is so intense that we cannot focus on anything else, then we must tend to our own wounds first. Otherwise, we will be driven to relieve their pain as a means of relieving our own, which is likely to do them more harm than good.
These three strategies should help us to regulate our own distress so that it does not absorb all our attention. They will also make it far more likely that our experience of empathy gives rise to other-directed emotions, such as sympathy and altruistic concern. Put another way, these strategies will tend to elicit feelings of compassion. And it is this emotion that will motivate us to relieve the suffering of others for their own sake.
The benefits of acting from compassion
Acting out of compassion is not merely the right thing to do. It is also far more satisfying. First, the alternative, as we have seen, is to walk away from the suffering of others; or to offer assistance merely as a way of making ourselves feel better. But to sustain this distance from reality requires that we immerse ourselves into a world of self-deception, cognitive distortions, blaming-the-victim, callousness, and so on. This is a terrible price to pay.
Second, the benefits of acting from compassion are so much greater for everyone involved. Empathy is not limited to feeling the pain of others. We can also feel the happiness that others experience. This means that, if we can ease the suffering of others, not only will our sympathy and concern for them dissipate — we will also experience something of the joy and relief that they feel as a consequence.
Third, if I act from compassion, then I will not need to resort to any self-destructive hiding from reality. Instead, I will be able to see myself through the eyes of those whose suffering I have helped to relieve, and feel the self-respect and fulfilment that comes with being a good person. Likewise, those who I have helped can see themselves through my eyes, and feel the deep assurance that comes with being recognised as a fellow human being of equal worth, just as deserving of happiness and well-being as anyone else.
This article is an adapted extract from my book: “Beyond Harm”