Bare Bones Biology 081 – Compassion

Last week
we talked about Karen Armstrong
and her Charter for Compassion. Here she is, speaking at Peace Week on The Shift Network

“The idea always is to start to change people’s mind sets, so that instead of compassion being a word that we don’t understand, we don’t know what it means, or we think it means pity, it’s something we think about . . .”

Ms. Armstrong also talks about the Golden Rule, and I agree with her. It’s just good common sense, and I’m saying that practical compassion is just good common sense.

I remember when someone wrote a book about “win-win” negotiation. It caught my fancy strongly and now, when I am negotiating something, I try to imagine a way that the result might be a win for everyone involved, except I no longer like to think of the world as something we can “win.” But the idea is there. Try to think of a solution that will give the most positive result for the most people. It’s certainly better than running scared, and for example your considerate interaction with other drivers generally does not end in a road rage incident. That’s practical compassion. The other driver doesn’t have to subject his heart to the rage and you don’t have to bother with it.

But it’s only compassion if you take the trouble to find out what the other person really does need and not what you think she ought to need if she were the kind of person you think she should be. That latter interaction would probably end with severe aggravation for someone, and probably everyone, because imposing so-called “good works” that people don’t want or need is not compassionate. So compassion is a bit more complicated than the Karen Armstrong quote might suggest. I like to think of compassion as three types.

First there is fake compassion. Of course fake compassion is not compassion, but that’s why I mention it – we want to avoid fake compassion. Karen Armstrong’s example of pity would be one type of fake compassion. Another example would be making excuses to justify bad behavior. Excuses are an easy out for everyone, and they appear compassionate, but the long-term result is harm to everyone. Sometimes people create problems so they can appear to compassionately resolve them. Real compassion cares about the welfare of the other.

The second type of compassion that I think of is free-floating compassion. The feeling of compassion is an important human instinct, everybody feels it sometimes, and some people feel it a lot, and usually it’s a very nice feeling, and it grows positive community. It’s a good thing to spread around. But to be focused practical compassion, we need more than our instinctual emotions. We need to combine our instinctual desire to nurture with our learned understanding of the universal law of cause and effect. While free-floating compassion draws from our inherent human instincts, practical compassion draws from both our instinct and our learned knowledge of how the world works, and especially about the universal law of cause and effect, or what comes around goes around, or karma, or whatever we call it. We all recognize that people are responsible for their own behaviors precisely because our behaviors have consequences that can cause harm to others.

For this reason, practical compassion doesn’t just rush out in a thoughtless action that might impoverish another person or the community or the ecosystem. Practical compassion educates itself: What will be the short-term effect of this action? What are the most likely long-term effects? Will the action benefit the individuals involved? The community? The whole living earth? Or will the action, no matter how elegant or heroic, cause more harm than good?

Usually, it’s some of both – and then the hard work of compassion begins. But any person who sincerely wants to imagine a better future, must begin with the hard work of imagining the most likely long-term and short-term effects of her actions, on herself, on the community and on the whole earth ecosystem.

Bare Bones Biology 081 – Compassion
KEOS Radio, 89.1 FM
Audio will be posted later at
WWW.BareBonesBiology.com

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