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)’ no harm in that, but it’s now even used 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 unscrupulously market it, let alone buy it and sell it like a commodity.
There’s plenty of evidence that Psychopathy and Leadership are close bedfellows, but surely this is taking it too far. Worst of all, the proselytes are simply wrong, confusing aspects of empathising as components of compassion which separately contains empathising! What? This lack of meta-cognition is compensated for, with a big fat dollop of randomly plucked ignoratio elenchi exemplars. I define Compassion as anything good. All good things are in and all bad things are out, ergo Compassion is good and would you like to buy some. For (insert expletive of choice) sake!
Notice, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as Compassion, my real beef is that I don’t think the proselytes really understand what the word actually means. As the only toddler in a 1970 yoga class, I’ve waded through easterly oriented happyclappy, most of my life. More recently, I’ve read around and around loads of articles, blogs, videos, some old books and even sludged my way through a couple of new 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 Dai, 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. The Compassionistas abuse this to refer to anything remotely nice, in a whimsical afternoon tea, sort of way. However, as far as the monks are concerned, there’s a whole philosophy in here 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, don’t turn to hate, but use your Compassion to drive you to stop them, because in this philosophy, they are also harming themselves. This seems a strong moral stance but beware, stray off the path and you can end up in some very dark religious territory, all touting that C 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. It goes something like this, “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, almost all of the ‘new 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, neurolinguistics and other similar @Neurobollocks aimlessly floating about at this end of the scale, all tangled up with that bloody C word. 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. These muppets are mostly found finger-painting their mbti score, onto a ouija board, at the back of a mindlessness class.
Most annoyingly, the Compassionistas insist that Compassion is what compels us to help others. Well yes, the emotional drivers are certainly powerful, but that insinuation is incredibly insulting. There are all sorts of reasons why we help others; culturally, ethically, vocationally and even professionally and it’s here that you can poke the Compassionistas straight in the eye. “Are you saying that our people lack compassion, or lack the professionalism, or even lack the capability, to take action. What exactly is it that you are saying about us, that we lack to such a degree that we need to buy it from you, you patronising shitbag?” Sorry, got carried away.
There is also a very old fashioned, sexist undertone to this requirement to be compassionate, especially when directed at female dominated areas of life and work. Because if Compassion – which you must have or you are not a good person – is somehow built into you, then it’s just you being you. What’s clever on the other hand, is having to work hard, do the late night on that tough essay and the following day focus for hours on a shift’s worth of great practice, take it all in, get your qualifications and sense of achievement that must be rewarded. No no, it’s Compassion that’s important and that’s just you being you and that’s not worth as much respect or salary, as something clever. Look out for this one, it’s more prevalent than you might think.
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 deep, intimate response that is more than socially sympathising and even more than emotionally empathising, to physically experience and feel the pain of another. Dai frames this sort of thing as Biological Compassion, the sort that drives you into taking action. Hold that thought. 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.
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. In fact baby’s DNA can be found wandering around inside mum for a long time, in a slightly scary space alien sort way called Fetal Microchimerism. The whole process effectively narrowing attention in preparation for focussing on baby, it’s commonly called bonding. That’s a horrible oversimplification but you know what I mean 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 craving comfort, and then to expressing discomfort – baby wants parents that respond pretty sharpish. 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 is in pain, the neurophysiological bond literally enables mum not just to mirror that emotion, empathically, but to deeply and viscerally feel it, compassionately. This is the true manifestation, the true nature, the true meaning of the word Compassion. Again Dad too, but we tend not to be quite so adept at distinguishing the different emotional states.
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 reaction as Mum, or the manifestation of a different more nuanced response, called Empathy or Sympathy?
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 another oversimplification and of course, a few of those charities are influential lobbyists 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 interpreted as wholly immoral or ideologically driven. That is, for the most part, completely wrong, as the reaction is undoubtedly also an instinctive form of self-preservation, in the face of hopelessness.
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 the C word 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 response to the Compassionistas: you are fundamentally wrong. Compassion is not some hierarchically superior form of emotional response like the near-Buddha orbit, it is a deep instinctive, non-conscious and uncontrollable form of empathy built into our nature, programmed into our genetic disposition, our fundamental humanity. Dai knows it and if you don’t believe either of us, go read about the consequences when that parental bond is disrupted. My go to on that is Dr Gabor Maté.
Consequently, 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 its people to be compassionate, is even more bloody dangerous. In this trivial pseudo-religious 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. I need only say “Mid Staffs” for you to realise – this harm is driven deep.
If you take nothing else from this article, repeat this phrase out loud and remember it: “Compassion is Radioactive”.
What that means to my clinical colleagues, is that it is powerful and dangerous. The power comes from its ability to do good, literally and physically, compassion, like radioactivity can save a life and cure a disease. Radiotherapy kills cancer. But, it is bloody dangerous and should only be used in clinical practice under highly controlled conditions, with a shitload of health, safety and personal protective equipment and always under professional supervision. Too much exposure and the staff themselves can be given cancer by that same radioactivity. Compassion is Radioactive.
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. I respect Sid because at a time when we didn’t know much about the universe, 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.@complexwales