Dai and Sid and the Compassionistas…

Right! Normal service is resumed as I charge out of my curmudgeonly corner wielding my philosophical axe. What’s for the chop this time: all the soft-arsed fluffy misappropriation of that bloody word Compassion.

It’s all over the place, used as the apologists suffix of choice tagged onto ‘organisational compassion’ or ‘ecological compassion’. It’s used as a social media handle ‘compassionate(insert name)’ and now even as a typically vacuous prefix like ‘compassionate consumerism’. The worst by far is the all new zeitgeist flavoured ‘compassionate leadership’ – a pro social response from well-to-do academics distancing themselves from the rise of the far-right. What sort of people are lacking a natural human trait like Compassion, to such an extent that they have to promote it and buy it like a commodity. There’s plenty of evidence that Psychopathy and Leadership are close bedfellows, but surely this is taking it too far.

Notice, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as Compassion, my real beef is that I don’t think people really mean to convey what the word actually means. I’ve read around and around loads of blogs, articles and even sludged my way through a couple of books – mostly written by middle-class Buddha Botherers – and when you get through to the meaning that these Compassionistas are attempting to convey, it’s all kinds of things. I expect the Dali Lama (or Dai as we call him in Wales) has to carry some blame for this, as there are a million quotes attributed to him, with that C word.

The Tibetan term for Compassion is nying je, which for the Dalai Lama connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit and warm-heartedness. People with these traits want to help others who suffer. But Nying je is not a literal translation, so in this sense Compassion is being used as an umbrella term for many things. There’s a whole philosophy in there about love and respect and Dai says that we simply cannot escape these necessities of life.

“This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need.”

Dali Lama

This is not just fluffy and passive however, and Dai says if others harm you, you shouldn’t turn to hate, but Compassion can drive you to stop them. This seems a strong moral philosophy but beware, stray off the path and you can end up in some very dark religious territory, all touting the word. Compassion has been used for centuries, to convey a much darker message; that in this life, you are supposed to suffer. This message was typically hurled from a Cathedral step, by a very rich medieval warlord in a gold gown and pointy hat: to a servile, uneducated populous struggling to survive amidst the poverty of subsistence. You are being watched all the time by an omnipotent leader who has already suffered for you, knows what you’re thinking and will determine your worthiness. “Suffer and you will be rewarded. Sorry, no, not in this life, in the next one”. A powerful social control fantasy.

There is a tinge of this amongst the Buddha Botherers but it’s kind of simmering underneath their preferred and far more acceptable lexicon, of social altruism. As an aside, Buddha is actually a title meaning ‘awakened one’, his real name was Sid – Siddhārtha Gautama. Anyway, all the books end up revealing a weirdly egomaniacal search for oneself. Ironically, from a bunch of middle-class hippies who don’t want to give up the trappings of their social status, but enjoy making themselves feel guilty about it. A form of pseudo-suffering. For the Compassionistas, it’s almost like the word Empathy has been somehow used up, or is out of fashion and so they’ve got to go for something deeper, more profound – in their search for self.

Don’t be fooled, few of them know anything about the Psychology of Empathy – a multifaceted concept that has a plethora of definitions and sub-categories. Developmental psychologists have generally defined empathy as a response elicited by observing or imagining another’s emotional state or condition. It involves both the apprehension of their emotional state and experience of emotions that are similar to how the other person is feeling or is assumed to feel. That academic tone makes me wince, but essentially you can spot it, feel it and think about feeling it. There are even scales of Empathy going from unconscious mimicking to some beyond-conscious transcendence. It’s like attaining a kind of ‘near-Buddha orbit’.

You’ve got to be careful up here. There are all kinds of mystical woo, NLP and other similar @Neurobollocks aimlessly floating about at this end of the scale – and most often tangled up with the word Compassion. I’ve even found a few bewildered souls, who talk about compassionate empathy. Not even going to reference that linguistic redundancy, which seems more like a marketing pitch for sharing how you feel. I think they really mean Therapeutic Empathy, the type that’s for sale at the right price.

So, what does the word Compassion actually mean?

First of all, the etymology of the word is particularly fascinating for anyone in Healthcare. Compassion and Patient share the same root in the Latin word patiens, from the verb patior, which means “I am suffering”. If you then add the Latin derivation of ‘Co’, Compassion actually translates as: to suffer together. Makes you realise that those medieval priests used the word Compassion, perhaps more truthfully than its present incarnation. This is also, probably why Compassion has been described as a visceral and deep response that is more than sympathising and even more than empathising, to actually experience and feel the pain of another. Dai frames this as biological Compassion and it’s supposed to drive you into taking action. There are certainly loads of instances and stories about people having this sort of experience. Consequently, there’s quite a bit of research on the subject, down in the foggy nether regions of Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience.

It turns out that Compassion is most likely an evolutionary artefact of the longest mammalian infancy: as babies we’re the most useless for longest, fully dependent on our parents. It’s well known that during pregnancy the baby exerts an affect on Mum’s biochemistry, physiology and perception. Effectively narrowing attention in preparation for focussing on baby, it’s commonly called bonding and yes Dad does it too albeit vicariously.

Anyway, as far as the genes are concerned, having an attentive mum means you’re more likely to survive. So, when baby is unhappy – beginning with hunger, moving to comfort, and then to expressing discomfort, baby wants parents that respond. That last part is particularly important for survival, so when baby feels really bad, it elicits a very personal response from the parent – who can even recognise the cry of their own baby amongst a cacophony. When baby, who can’t communicate with words, is in pain, the bond literally enables mum not just to mirror that emotion, empathically, but to deeply and viscerally feel it. Dad too, but we’re not quite so good at distinguishing the different emotional states. Is it a pain or a pooh?

So, it turns out, that you can be really compassionate towards your children. You can also be compassionate towards your siblings, they are on your side genetically, but not so much. In truth, as you get older, you’re not really that compassionate towards your parents – until there’s a threat of losing them and all the childhood emotions flood back. During the rest of your life you may have a small bit of space in the emotional bank to be compassionate towards a partner, the odd bosom buddy, or a pet (replacement baby). Compassion is a rare and finite resource.

So can you really be compassionate towards anyone else, especially people you don’t know? Well there’s no denying that you can be touched by the plights and delights of strangers. I’m sure most of us have had the experience of witnessing someone struggling with or overcoming adversity and welled up, unexpectedly. There are certain types of story that connect with us, if only for a moment, when we see a reflection of our own humanity. It hits deep and is a powerful motivator to take action. But is that the same neuroscientific process, or the manifestation of a different more nuanced response?

For example – and being conscious that this is going to sound wrong – I’m not much of a fan of charity. There’s something dark about its institutionalisation that requires the perpetuation of destitution. In particular the increasing number of unscrupulous fanatical types, deliberately twisting the psychological knife to get their hands on the very lucrative societal seam of naivety and fear. If people are in need, I want my taxes to help them, rather than some of the corporate shite they are spent on. I know that’s an oversimplification and of course, a few of those charities are influential lobbyists to redirect a little of that tax and that’s got to be a good thing. Anyway what I’m getting at is, charities are becoming ever more aware of Donor-Fatigue, where people become almost inoculated against the suffering of others and stop giving. This lack of Compassion is often seen as immoral or ideologically driven, but it is undoubtedly also an instinctive form of self-preservation, in the face of hopelessness.

Compassion Fatigue…

In healthcare, this same phenomena is called Compassion Fatigue. As I’ve attempted to convey, Compassion may be deep, but it’s not wide. You have a limited supply, reserved for your nearest and dearest. So if you go about trying to be compassionate towards everyone, you will run out and that is biologically, physically and psychologically harmful. You are going to get hurt. Dai has a habit of using Compassion for both types of response and this is where the Compassionistas come in and cause havoc – usually just a glimpse in their rear view mirror, just after collecting the cheque. Having a genuine feeling of respect and care for others is not the same as the biology and requires education, commitment, resources and many years of apprenticeship. Dai has been doing pretty much, nothing else for 80 years and still not got it all sussed.

And this is my problem with the Compassionistas. The idea of running a profession on Compassion, even nursing, is bloody dangerous. Simply professing in a written statement of values that your organisation requires it’s people to be compassionate, is even more bloody dangerous. In this trivial visionary leadership sense, its use demonstrates an ignorant totalitarianism that is the literal antithesis of Compassion. Like the medieval proponents, it threatens to convict the people of a thought crime, for something they cannot possibly sustain. This harm is driven deep.

So for people immersed in the business of suffering – and let’s be honest, that’s what healthcare mostly relieves – please learn about, study, understand and be driven by Empathy for the people around you. I’d go further and suggest as professionals, we aspire towards the practice of Unconditional Positive Regard and share it often and generously. Combine that with some good skills, useful tools, a load of knowledge and an ethical obligation to take action and you’ve got the full package. Physically, socially, emotionally, mentally and morally complete and worthy of a reward in this life, let alone the next one. But please, save your Compassion for those rare occasions, when it really matters.

Bugger! Now I sound like one of those Buddha-Bothering Compassionistas. Well, alright, underneath this curmudgeonly old fart, is someone born just too late to be a proper hippy. I’ve got a lot of respect for Sid, not just because of the family resemblance and certainly not the religiosity, but because he was a bloody insightful thinker. I get annoyed with all the bullshit pedlars of enlightenment claptrap, when Sid actually talked about a very pragmatic way of being in the world and getting on with most of it. He was the first Ecologist. I’m also pretty sure Sid would have thought that just ‘suffering together’ wasn’t particularly pragmatic. And on that note, I’ll leave the last word to his best mate, Dai…

Girl: Can you really feel compassion for everyone that you meet?

Dai: In truth, only for a moment. Then it is much more important to be kind and helpful.


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