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My Heart Goes Out

Before we dive into the topic of compassion, let’s differentiate between compassion and empathy. Those two words are often seen as interchangeable and synonymous, but they are actually very different.

Empathy is centered in the emotion part of the brain. Empath means emotionally joining in the suffering of others (often unconsciously), but it stops short of actually doing anything. The challenge with empathy is that a person runs the risk of taking on another person’s suffering, and because it is strictly an emotion, it can turn into stuck-ness and depression.

Compassion originates in the cognitive part of the brain, it is the active response to our feelings of empathy. Our brains consciously process the empathy, the situation, the suffering and possible ways to help. Emotion is turned into action.

Compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. It’s summed up in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Compassion prods us to work to alleviate the suffering of others  - human, animal and environmental. Compassion impels us to remember that we are not the center of the universe, and to honor the sacredness of others, treating them fairly, with respect and justice.

People like to believe that the Golden Rule began with Jesus, but in fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively. The Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) was once asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day.” He responded with the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Confucius believed that a person who behaved this way “all day and every day” would become a junzi, a “mature human being.”

In Matthew 9: 9-13, Jesus is once again in trouble with the Pharisees (some of the Jewish leaders), this time for “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Basically he responds that his mission is to be with the people who need him most and it doesn’t matter who they are.  Jesus tells them, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifices.’” (This comes from Hosea 6:6 “For I desire kindness toward others, not sacrifice, acknowledgement of God, not burnt offerings.”)

In the NIV, there are at least four other passages that are translated as Jesus had “compassion” for people and so he did something to help them. Instead of “compassion,” our Inclusive Bible uses words like “Jesus’ heart was moved” or “My heart goes out” or simply he was “moved with pity.” I don’t like the word "pity" because it speaks more of feeling sorry for someone as opposed to being in solidarity in their suffering. But, what I want to focus on is the concept of “being moved,“ of one’s “heart going out” to another. This is the example that Jesus set for us. To allow ourselves to become vulnerable enough to open our hearts to another, to allow ourselves to be moved by another’s situation and to do something about it.

I know there are tons of people in our world who do this, but at the same time it feels to me like it happens less than it used to. A 2019 survey from Action for Happiness found 60% of people believed Britain had become less caring over the past 10 years. And another study of American students published in Personality and Social Psychology Review "revealed that levels of empathy in this demographic fell by 48% between 1979 and 2009." That’s even before the pandemic, the refugee crisis, the blatant racism of the past decade, social media bullying, and so much more. 

So, I discovered two different phenomenon that might help us explain this: compassion fatigue and compassion fade.

Compassion fatigue refers most specifically to heath care workers and caregivers, and came to the forefront with the pandemic. It describes people who are experiencing the continued stress of a traumatic situation and can include symptoms like emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of suffering, feeling numb and disconnected, feeling less empathy and sensitivity, anxiety, less desire to care for one’s self or do things one enjoys, and more.

Compassion fade is a psychological reaction that is not a result of conditioning or society’s value system. It is a universal human phenomenon whose root cause lies in the way our brains process information about individuals versus groups. Studies have shown that the part of the brain responsible for producing empathic responses, is much more engaged when processing stories about one person than stories about many people. Psychologically, we're wired to be more moved to help a single victim than multiple victims. In addition, we're more apt to try to help an identifiable victim than an unidentifiable one.

An example of these effects is when the world erupted in outrage and heartbreak when a photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi was taken as he lay deceased on a beach after his ship, filled with other Syrian refugees, sank. Less than a year later, more than 700 refugees drowned on a single day, but this event failed to garner the same amount of media attention. When we can put a face and a story behind a cause, we experience stronger feelings of empathy and compassion, and this makes us more likely to take action, whether that means donating to a cause, informing ourselves, or acting in the interest of the greater good. 

The spiritual path is a path of empathetic, non-judgmental care for others and allowing our hearts to go out in compassionate response to help alleviate their suffering. Sadly, we are easily overwhelmed by the needs of so many people these days and we appear to be psychologically programmed to back off and shut down when that happens. Yet, the example Jesus set for us is to open our hearts, to allow our hearts to be moved to help others. How do we get there?

What I found interesting in my research this week is that we can be trained to be more compassionate. In 2013 at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a study was conducted to determine if adults could be trained to be more compassionate. And the answer was yes.

The compassion training used an ancient Buddhist meditation to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the short meditation the person pictured someone who was suffering and then practiced wishing them well by repeating phrases to help them focus on compassion such as “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” This was practiced with different categories of people, starting with someone easy like a loved one, then moving to a friend or family member, themselves and finally a stranger, then finally someone they deemed a “difficult person.”

According to the article, "This group was compared to another group who practiced cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks and then they were asked to play a “Redistribution Game” on the internet. The people trained in compassion were more likely to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal."

Then researchers used functional MRIs to measure how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering.

Helen Wang, lead author of the paper, said "it is sort of like weight training." Using this method, it was determined that a person could “actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and response to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion, wrote, “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.”

I encourage all of us to become more aware of our responses (or lack thereof) to people who are suffering and in need. Are we experiencing compassion fatigue, or compassion fade? Is it time to start working on our compassion muscle? Use the link above to try the meditation, it is something you can use almost anywhere you are, and in a world of so much brokenness and pain, it is important not to become so overwhelmed, or callous and indifferent, that we tune it out.

Love & Light!