It All Starts With You — 1000 Voices for Compassion (#1000Speak)

speak for compassion

Compassion is the strong sympathy and sorrow felt for another’s suffering accompanied by the motivation to ease that suffering. It is not the same as empathy or altruism, but they are all related. Empathy is the ability to take the perspective and feel the emotions of someone else’s situation. Altruism is the selfless behaviour to help someone else. It is often prompted by compassion.

Compassion is a virtue that we, as a society, don’t seem to practice enough. Why is that? Maybe, it’s because we just don’t have it in us anymore. Life is competitive, everyone wants what everyone else seems to have. People are working longer hours to get ahead, or just to make ends meet. That has to be juggled with family, friends and health. Today, the first response to pain or suffering usually involves looking for someone/something to blame or shielding ourselves by passing judgement. Shame and blame is a quick, easy way to combat suffering even though compassion and understanding are more effective. I’m not intending to make excuses for us here, there should be no excuses for lack of compassion. I don’t think we, as a society, meant to be less compassionate, just that we have adopted other priorities and this is the result. It’s time to be held accountable.

An article in Scientific American in 2012 discussed how wealth influences compassion. Several studies were conducted examining how social class (wealth, job prestige and education) influence how much we care about each other. One study found that drivers of luxury vehicles were more likely to cut in front of other drivers or speed past pedestrians than other vehicles. Another study showed that those with lower incomes and less education were more likely to report feelings of compassion in response to watching a video about children suffering from cancer. The same people had lower heart rates while watching the video compared to their wealthy, more educated counterparts. A lower heart rate is indicative of paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others. Previous studies have also shown that the upper class are worse at recognizing emotions and less likely to pay attention to the people they are interacting with.

Why is this? Wouldn’t it make more sense that having fewer resources, you would be more selfish? Apparently not. There may be some truth to the rich, educated and snobby stereotype after all (keeping in mind, that according to my education and where I live, I fit into this stereotype too). Researchers believe that with wealth and abundance comes more freedom and more independence from each other. Could it be that if we are less reliant on each other, the less we can relate to one another and the less we care about each others’ feelings?

Pema Chödrön said something in The Places That Scare You that I really liked; “…compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals…compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” We are all connected and will remain connected because we are all human. We all struggle, we all make mistakes. That should not be forgotten because of a difference in social status or ignored because we don’t agree with something. Behind every situation there are people trying to make the world better for themselves or the people they love. Surely that is something we can all relate to.

Scientists believe compassion is vital to our survival as a species. This notion dates back to Charles Darwin and The Descent of Man. He believed sympathy was our strongest instinct and that it would spread through natural selection. “…the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Considering what awful things we do to each other, it seems ludicrous that sympathy would be one of our strongest instincts, but the fact that we continue to survive as a species proves that it is true. Human babies are the most dependent and vulnerable offspring on Earth. Babies can’t sit up or feed themselves. They can’t even hold their own heads up at first. This vulnerability has led to the evolution of social structures and has essentially re-wired our nervous systems to make us a care-giving species.

Compassion is not written into our genetic code, but humans are wired to be compassionate right down to the neurochemical level. Imaging studies have shown that the area of the brain that lights up when you feel pain is the same area that is activated in response to seeing suffering. This area, the periaqueductal gray, is also associated with nurturing behaviour. Suffering is seen as a threat and the reaction to a threat is to self-protect, but biology has shown that at the same time, we also instinctively want to relieve suffering via nurturing. It could be our competitive lifestyle leaving us exhausted or a lack of connection created by wealth and power or something else entirely, but somehow, society has evolved to ignore that basic nurturing instinct. Compassion is not something we are born with or not, it is a practice. One that can be taught and learned if we would only make it a priority.

How can we build a more compassionate society? It all starts with you. A society is built of individuals and it is the actions of those individuals that determine the characteristics of the society. Let yourself off the hook once and a while. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have it all. Compassion spreads quickly. Positive emotions are just as contagious as the negative ones. In fact, they spread more rapidly and collectively. When you are kinder to yourself you create a wealth of compassion that you can extend to others. One person cannot change the world, but if each individual allowed compassion to be a primary motive instead of being the best and having the best, the world would be a more peaceful place.

(To learn more about 1000 Voice for Compassion and how the project got started, visit the official blog here.)

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Self-esteem Challenge: Day 5

This blog challenge was developed by betterthandarkchocolate.tumblr.com. If you missed the introduction or want to see a summary of all the questions, go here.

Day 5:
Something about the way you think that you like.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?

I like that I can see a situation from different angles. It causes some problems like anxiety or too much empathy, but I think it’s a good trait to have. I may not be able to walk in your shoes, but I can listen, understand and empathize more than the average person, I think. It keeps me prepared as well. By thinking about possible outcomes of a situation, I can hope for the best, but also be prepared for the worst. This enables me to react quickly and hopefully turn things around. I think the benefits outweigh the anxiety it causes in this case.

My proudest accomplishment is not what you would expect. Most would assume it would be my M.Sc. or one of my academic scholarships. My M.Sc. was a bad experience (another post, another time) and I’m thankful for my scholarships, but not really proud. The moment I really felt like a rockstar was after giving a one hour lecture at a rehab conference. It was my first talk at a conference and it is still my longest to date. It went really well! I kept my audience’s attention, they laughed at the jokes I threw in here and there and they stood up and clapped at the end. After the talk, a lot of people came to talk to me. They all had good things to say and I think I did well answering their questions. I felt like I knew my stuff and I deserved to be where I was, something I frequently doubt.

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Empathy

Is it possible to have depression and be an empath? Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another because you’ve experienced what they have or you can put yourself in their shoes. It is not the same as sympathy which is more like acknowledging someone’s emotional hardships and comforting them. Depression is often defined as emptiness and a loss of interest in life. How can someone who has trouble feeling their own emotions experience the emotions of others so acutely? Several studies show that people with mental illness are unable to experience empathy. This makes sense to me.

What doesn’t make sense to me is the way I react to other people’s situations. Sad movies are just not an option. They are just too upsetting. There was an election here recently and the party I didn’t want to gain power was crushed. It was brutal, the party leader even lost her seat. Instead of being relieved and happy that the people I voted for won, I was busy feeling bad for the woman who lost. The devastation she must have been feeling seemed unbearable. Something happened to an online friend recently, that really affected me too. I’ve never even met these people and probably never will. Why does how they are feeling matter so much? Why does it affect me? Home come I can’t feel my own feelings, but I can imagine and experience someone else’s?

The worst case recently has been my husband. He didn’t get a job that he applied for. He didn’t even get into the second round of interviews. This job was a really good opportunity for him to leave teaching and get back into wildlife. He is really not happy teaching. He has to be someone he doesn’t like just to keep his students under control. This year alone, he has been sworn at, shoved and seriously threatened. This wildlife job opportunity had really lifted him up. He had volunteered at this place in his teen years and has plenty of experience working with animals. I thought he was going to get it for sure, but to not even be called for the second round of interviews? Ouch. I was shocked, still am. I feel absolutely sick over it. It’s like all the hope has been sucked out of me and I feel worthless and unappreciated. I should be comforting him and I am trying, but I also feel like I need a big piece of cake. Why do I feel this way? I can understand the shock and feeling bad for him, but feeling hopeless? That’s not my emotion to feel, it’s his.

Does anyone else experience this?

not all scars show drawing

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