Day 609: Why Aren't We More Compassionate?

There was a very important study done a while ago at Princeton Theological Seminary that speaks to why it is that when all of us have so many opportunities to help, we do sometimes, and we don't other times. A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped the stranger in -- to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? 
The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in -- were they feeling they were late, or were they absorbed in what they were going to talk about. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don't take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.  - Daniel Goleman

This post is based on the TED Talk by psychologist and renowned author Daniel Goleman. I highly recommend reading or watching the full talk to get a fuller context on what follows.

So it is generally accepted in the scientific world that humans are essentially compassionate and empathic. Why then does the world exist in the state it's in? The suffering that humanity has directly caused is unfathomable, and the suffering that humanity has allowed to continue is unimaginable. Just in our day to day lives it is more likely that we will act only in self interest than stopping to help another or considering how far the consequences of our actions extend.

Later on in the Talk Mr Goleman brings up the issue of people not really knowing all the parts involved in the manufacturing of any one product and what harm they may be inadvertently supporting by buying a particular product (unfortunately most products). You don't know if that item was made with slave labour, or if one of the factories that made one part of the product pollutes the surrounding area. The reality is that you probably don't think about those possibilities at all - all you're thinking about is "I need this in order to do/experience that".

The Talk above basically lays it out that the only reason we don't care more about other people/animals/things is because we're so caught up in our own little worlds of thoughts, needs, desires, emotions and feelings. The question then is: if most people are capable of caring, so long as they are not in the midst of self-obsession, how do we change our cul
ture of self obsession to become one of consideration, practicality and empathy?

I know of at least a few ways to do this that I applied (and still do apply) in my own life.
  • Breathing - focusing on your breath and consciously bringing your awareness here to the present moment with your breathing. This also entails self discipline in not allowing yourself to stray into thoughts or emotions, but remain present and aware of yourself and your surroundings.
  • Writing as self-reflection. Writing about your experiences throughout your day and focusing on moments when you were experiencing the specific behaviour that you want to change. For example, if you want to become more aware and less self-involved, write about what triggered you becoming self involved at some point in your day or earlier past, note what you were doing, thinking, feeling and use those triggers, thoughts, actions and emotions as red flags for yourself so that if you see yourself participating in any of those flagged points you then have the opportunity to stop yourself from getting sucked into a spiral of self obsession (breathing yourself back into awareness is also useful here). Very often strong emotional experiences are an automatic red flag, as well as moments where you believe that you are right and everyone around you is wrong (yes, unwillingness to consider another's point of view fits in under self obsession).
  • Remaining present and aware by sheer force of will. Works for some. 
  • Flag specific thoughts for yourself - thoughts that you have noticed usually start off a self-obsessed experience. Those thoughts eventually come into your mind accompanied by some sort of warning for yourself (like scanning the words on a page, looking for a specific word, it just jumps out at you)
All of these things require self discipline and a desire to change - without that, change is unlikely. You need to be able to drive yourself out of the mindset you've had all your life and this cannot be done magically, it will take years of dedication. What is important to know is that it is possible - we do not have to be bound to who we have always been - in this regard we have real freedom of choice.