The curious case of compassion

Never has there been such clarity of the eternal design, where an action of one can affect the fate of millions


Dr Ayesha Mian April 07, 2020
The writer is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Dean of Students at Aga Khan University

Towards the end of 2016, Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University, challenged centuries of passed down adage with his book, Against Empathy — The Case for Rational Compassion. With provocative objectivity and deliberate examples, he described how empathy may be a dangerous ground to work from, as actions prompted by empathy are often “innumerate and biased”. There is sustained evidence, he says, that we empathise more with those that we identify with or even find attractive, at times leading to a myopic understanding. He cautions against the hazards of good intentions and puts his money instead on kindness and compassion. Defining compassion as “simply caring for people, wanting them to thrive”, he follows that the rationality of cost-benefit analysis as a general system plus the humanity of compassion equals “rational compassion”.

The concept of compassion is as old as history itself. Most Abrahamic religions characterise their God with compassion, Islam with God being ‘all Merciful’, Christianity with ‘Father of Compassion’ or ‘of all comfort’, Judaism with the concept of ‘Rehmana’ or Compassionate as one of attributes of God. Compassion is also the cornerstone of most other religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and more. The etymology of “compassion” is Latin, and means “co-suffering”.

As a healthcare professional, I am deeply familiar with compassion. One of the first talks that I give to our newly-minted medical students is on Humanism in Medicine and compassion takes centre stage in that discussion. We talk about how compassion is about feeling a patient’s suffering and them acting on a desire to alleviate it. In small groups students talk about how compassion breaks all barriers of race, colour, creed and socioeconomic class; they argue about how rational compassion demands that instead of striving for emotional identification we should be cultivating our ability to stand back in order to provide a more rationally effective programme of care. Perhaps Shakespeare was also alluding to rational compassion when he had Hamlet declare, “I must be cruel, only to be kind.”

Another concept that behooves introduction here is that of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is popularly described as a condition characterised by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others; in the field of trauma it is sometimes described as the “cost of caring” for people facing emotional pain. It is often used interchangeably with burnout, but unlike burnout which is used generally in the case of the tedium and pervasive routine of any ongoing work, compassion fatigue is used more in the context of taking care of another living being.

I bring up this topic in the context of the crisis we are faced with today. Social media, news articles and the web are strewn with communications asserting the benefits of altruism and compassion as a way to combat the stressors and anxiety brought upon by the multifaceted impact of the virus. Psychology experts are recommending people to engage in small acts of kindness like looking after elderly neighbours, reaching out to people in self-isolation, volunteering their time for those unable to fend for themselves, countering racism and xenophobia which keeps raising its ugly head, and more. Social media is bustling with people seeking ways to share positivity, laughter, initiating music chains and organising fundraisers for the daily wagers who may have lost their sources of employment, all driven with a hope that these stories will build a sense of community and prevent one from getting into a spiral of hopelessness and isolation.

Leadership is also being measured on their tone of support and compassion or lack thereof. We have the likes of Jacinda Ardin asking her people to be strong and kind, and Angela Merkel, described as fervently compassionate, asking for heroic acts of kindness and understanding how painful it is that just when people desperately want to come together, families and friends have to endure separation. Almost a bipartisan divide from the above is seen in the tenor of Bolsonaro accusing the Brazilian media of trying to stoke nationwide hysteria, calling Covid-19 a “fantasy”, “a little flu” and the hype “overblown”. Trump’s dictums can also safely be categorised as indifferent at best.

Humans are primed to ascertain their worth in the context of their usefulness to the context around them. As our world spirals into a vortex of uncertainty and unremitting change, acts of compassion help to achieve the above. If that is to be a sustainable solution though, it is imperative to not follow the herd mindlessly but find pathways that connect meaningfully to what we hold true and dear. According to Kristin Neff, professor and pioneer in the field of self-compassion, it is in being mindful, showing kindness to self and embracing connection with others, that one can increase their psychological well-being and emotional resilience.

These are truly unprecedented times, and the human condition is being stretched to its limit as we suddenly find ourselves measured against our abilities of adaptability, litheness, and understanding the universality of our suffering. Self compassion dictates that we be mindful of fatigue, burnout and inauthenticity. Rational compassion dictates that we think smartly about where our energies are best directed. Never has there been such clarity of the eternal design of our universe, where an action of one can affect the fate of millions. And so, we would do well to reflect on the strength of compassion to pull us through this, not decreeing or passing judgments, as to who truly deserves this plight.

Albert Camus in his book, The Plague, writes, “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.” For the poets to write a verse, the gardeners to plant a seed, the healers to nurture the sick, the comedians to share a laugh, the composers to make music, the scientists to discover a vaccine and for all of us to be kind — that is compassion indeed.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2020.

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