In Defense of Compassion
Right now all of us are overwhelmed by fear: for our nation, for our planet, for our families, and more. Perhaps the most pervasive fear I’m seeing at the moment, the one that transcends everything from economic status to political belief, is the fear of getting sick. Every time I sneeze, I have a split second of panic. Is this the coronavirus? Is this the beginning of the end? This fear isolates us even more effectively than social distancing. We don’t want to burden each other by talking about it, so we remain silent.
For all their benefits, the overuse of platforms like zoom and Facebook can be very detrimental to our mental health. That is especially true in this time of global panic. We’re all hurting right now, and we don’t always have the energy to absorb each other’s pain. Just like our shortage of medical supplies, we have a shortage of compassion.
In her well-known video about empathy, Brené Brown explains that connection is the most effective way to help each other through pain and grief. Simply sitting with someone and validating their feelings is far more helpful than telling them to look for silver linings. I agree with her analysis. However, this kind of connection relies on the emotional resources of the support person. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Thupten Jinpa is a Tibetan scholar best known for his work as the Dalai Lama’s primary English translator. He is also a world-renowned expert on the philosophy of compassion. He defines compassion as “a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.”
Jinpa is defining a mental, even spiritual, practice. He does not say that compassion means going out and delivering groceries, making masks in bulk, or donating thousands of dollars to the post office. I do not mean to minimize the importance of these actions — if you have the means, please do undertake them! However, not all of us have the ability to contribute in such concrete ways. So how can we cultivate compassion during this crisis?
Loving-kindness meditation is a practice in which you picture giving and receiving good energy. Sitting comfortably, you’ll think of a person who loves you very much, whom you love in return. Focus on their good wishes for you. Slowly add in a group of people, including friends, family, and even those who have passed on, all of whom love you and want to see you doing well. Receive the warmth and kindness of their feelings toward you.
In the next step, you return the love you have received. You recognize that you are similar to each of these people, in that all of you want to have a happy life. Send your warmth to them. In this phase of the meditation, silently repeat phrases such as “Just as I wish to, may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you live with ease and happiness.”
In different versions, you may go on to send the same well-wishes directly to yourself, to distant acquaintances, or even to people with whom you have more difficult relationships. I recommend starting slowly and working your way up to this final step over time. Sending warm energy toward your political opponents, for example, should be considered an advanced exercise.
There are a number of guided loving-kindness meditations available for free online. If you’re new to this practice, or returning to it after a break, it’s especially helpful to work with a recording until you have some recent experience.
Loving-kindness has a well-documented positive impact on both mental and physical health. It can improve a wide variety of conditions, from respiratory issues to PTSD to chronic pain. Most notably, it activates emotional processing, increases levels of compassion, and curbs self-criticism.
This kind of meditation is not meant to whitewash negative feelings or analytical judgements. It’s possible to love someone and still be angry with them. It’s equally possible to disagree with someone on a fundamental level and yet feel compassion for their struggle.
By cultivating an internal habit of empathy and understanding, we can have a positive impact on the world. This is true even in isolation. You may find, for instance, that you have more emotional energy to support struggling friends and loved ones. Failing that, the simple act of nurturing compassion for yourself is deeply healing.
Words of Wisdom
Jinpa tells us that being a friend to yourself is of utmost importance, and makes our compassion for others more sustainable. When we have compassion for our own struggles, we begin to understand what support looks like. As a result, we develop the ability to differentiate between our pain and the pain of others. This works against resentment and exhaustion, and makes us more effective advocates.
That being said, self-compassion is not a prerequisite for community care. I am not suggesting that you should simply pull your heart up by its bootstraps and decide to feel a different way. When you reach toward a new goal, it’s easy to fall into the pattern of shaming yourself for slow progress. Engaging in this kind of negativity — in all cases, but especially when the thing you’re striving toward is a positive feeling — is deeply counterproductive. Be gentle. Trust the process.
Experts agree that positive self-talk can have a huge impact on mental health. By noticing the words you use to describe yourself, both aloud and in the privacy of your own mind, you can improve your self-esteem and self-compassion. Some of these techniques may be counterintuitive. For example, referring to yourself in the third person allows you some distance from your emotions. Instead of thinking “Wow, I did such a terrible job!” I might say to myself “Ok, Hannah, that wasn’t your best work. How can you do better?” This simple change makes it easier to become, as Jinpa suggests, a friend to yourself.
We often have a harder time feeling compassion for ourselves than for other people. When a friend tells me “I did this thing because I’m an idiot,” it’s easy for me to respond “Yes, you did that thing. But no, you’re not an idiot. Please don’t talk about my friend that way.” You can also use this strategy for internal conversations. Critical judgement of your own behavior is an essential component of personal growth. However, our failures are actions, not innate qualities that determine our worth as people.
The words we use also affect our relationships. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman wrote that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” Their research illustrates the way positive words such as “peace” and “love” can stimulate frontal lobe activity and change the actual structure of the brain over time. Using this data, they developed a strategy called “Compassionate Communication” which is intended to build trust and decrease conflict between people.
I’m not encouraging you to simply look on the bright side of your current situation; that would be dangerously reductive. Toxic positivity — that is, simply ignoring painful truths and trying to “buck up” — is extremely damaging. The words we use create our reality. By cultivating compassion for ourselves and other people, we make room for our pain and fear while continuing to seek out a positive way forward.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The act of gift-giving improves both your mental health and the world around you. Generosity increases levels of oxytocin in the brain, which facilitates a sense of bonding. By engaging in common bonding rituals — even from afar — you can increase feelings of joy and togetherness.
Psychologists have also linked giving behavior to happiness. One study shows that the “pleasure centers” of the brain are “equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves.”
There are countless ways to give back, especially right now. Remember, though, that some of the most meaningful gifts do not have monetary value. With so many Americans in dire financial straits, this is a time to uncouple your sense of self-worth from your income. If you’re out of work, turn to art. Write a poem for a friend. Draw a stick figure cartoon for your neighbor. Take a photo of a flower in bloom and text it to your sister. Think of how meaningful it is to receive even the simplest message of love right now, and give your loved ones the attention we’re all craving.
Compassion fatigue, sometimes referred to as Secondary Traumatic Stress, is a serious condition. It is most often diagnosed in healthcare practitioners, including doctors, nurses, and therapists. When someone is continually exposed to others who have been severely traumatized, they can develop symptoms of their own, such as emotional exhaustion, irritability, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.
Every day, we are bombarded with more and more bad news. People are dying. The government is sharply divided. Some of us are worried about sick friends and relatives, and some of us are mourning those we’ve lost. Even if no one in your immediate circle is ill, you’ve probably seen friends on social media requesting thoughts and prayers for their ailing loved ones.
It is natural to be exhausted and numbed by these tragedies. When you run out of energy to help other people, focus on yourself. Go back to basics. Are you eating vegetables? Drinking enough water? Getting good sleep? Create a routine for yourself that includes breaks from reading the news.
As I see it, compassion fatigue is caused by emotionally overwhelming external interactions. When you can step back from the needs of those around you, you’ll suddenly have time to offer that same level of care to yourself.
Compassion and Resilience
Compassion strengthens our relationships with ourselves and other people. Studies have shown that it also improves levels of resilience. Neuroscientist Julia Samton writes that self-compassion decreases anxiety, allowing us to “recover more quickly from negative emotions, even when handling the biggest challenges.” This pandemic can certainly be described as one of the biggest challenges any of us have faced.
Now more than ever, resilience is a necessity. The future is tremendously uncertain, and it’s up to us to build a better world. This process will not be easy or straightforward. We will continue to encounter hardships we cannot yet predict. By remaining flexible, we’ll have a better chance of surviving those challenges. If we can develop compassion now, we’ll be able to face whatever comes next with sanity and grace.