Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Power Of Compassion

This blog is in part a response to the TED.com video of Daniel Goleman and his thoughts on compassion


We humans unlike any other species on this planet are equipped with the tools needed to exhibit great acts of compassion. Everything from the wiring in our brains to the genes encoded by our DNA all at some level help us not only connect more with other people but demonstrate great acts of sympathy, kindness and compassion. In our brains for example we have the recently discovered neural-circuits known as mirror neurons, which fire when we see other people performing a particular task such as running or kicking a ball or even when we see other people experiencing any specific kind of physical pain such as getting hit in the head or stubbing a toe. These neurons not only fire when we see other people performing a task or experiencing pain but also fire when we ourselves perform the same task or experience the same physical pain, meaning to these neurons there is no real difference between seeing someone do something and you doing it yourself. More importantly there is no real difference between someone else’s pain or suffering and that of your own.

Yet another example is in child development and how it is only at a certain age or stage of development that children are able to see themselves through someone else’s eyes, or understand that what they see or know may not be what some else’s can see and vice versa, thus truly placing themselves in someone else’s shoes. This ability sets the foundation for greater communication, connection and understanding and occurs very early in child development. I believe the most profound example would be in our DNA where we actually have genes that encode for altruistic behaviors, behaviors that drive complete strangers to risk their lives for one another such as in the known cases of people jumping in front of a bus to save a baby or carrying a stranger with them out of a burning building. These tools for compassion are very powerful and do have the potential to help us do great things when it comes to the way we treat other people or our surrounding environment however they are only a set among many tools we as humans have to unsure our survival, meaning it is not the only voice in our heads so to speak and it does not have the final say when it comes to our actual behavior.

Although compassion is deep rooted in our biology, constantly urging us to show empathy and be compassionate we humans can suppress that urge just in the same way we can suppress many other biological urges or sensations like pain, hunger, sleep, and even the urge to use the bathroom. However unlike other biological urges there are no real physically harmful consequences for suppressing your urge for compassion, are at least not in the same way that suppressing your urge for hunger will cause you bodily harm and even death if done for too long. Therefore there is really no limit to how long or how often you can suppress the urge for compassion where as not giving in to hunger can lead to death and ignoring the urge to urinate can only be done for so longer before the body takes back control and gives in, compassion has no real physical tides to the body and thus no way to enforce itself. This is why compassion has become so easily ignored in today’s society. We are so easily distracted by our fast placed culture with our almost endless assortments of toys and gadgets, advanced technologies, high work expectations, extreme levels of stress and anxiety and very little free time, that we forget to act on and even sometimes fail to notice that the moments where caring or compassion is needed.

As in the video where Daniel Goleman talks about getting on the train and seeing everyone walking right pass a man laying on the side of the steps in obvious pain failing to notice that something is wrong. Well that’s us right now we are all just going about our day failing to notice that our planet is in pain and in need of some serious help because we are too busy with all the distractions taking away our attention. In the video all it took was one man, Daniel Goleman to notice and take action not only helping the poor man but getting other people to realize that there was in fact and problem and the man did in fact need help. After that the man got the help he needed and was back on his feet within a matter of minutes, showing that all the people previously walking over the man were not bad people without compassion just distracted and once the distraction was gone all that was need was to give in and yet the urge of compassion take over and do what is has been trained for millions of year of evolution to do –give aid to a person in need. Just as the people in the story did this for a man on the side of a subway staircase we can do it not only for the people we encounter on the street but for the planet as a whole because it too can be seen as a person and it too is in desperate need of help.

This is why when it comes to the many problems we are facing with the environment I like Daniel Goleman am optimistic because if there is any species on the planet that can save the planet my guess would be on the one best able to show compassion and we humans are that species. Once our eyes are open and we become fully aware of the problem there is no limit to the things we can do and with all the tools needed to exhibit great acts of compassion already at our disposable we won’t need to go any further then look into our own hearts for guidance. Our instincts have already been there all this time telling us what we should do all we have to do now is listen and give in to the urge that we have been suppressing for so long. Even a small child knows when someone needs help (picture below) the only difference between that small child and we adults is that we are just not paying enough attention.

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