9. Love for the good of the other (I)

It is all about relationships

There isn’t a week that passes by without telling my parents how much I love them. Or that I remind myself about my fortune to be loved by so many people. We take for granted the notion of love in our close relationships with our family, partners, and friends. But what about deep relationships outside of the private sphere?

I spend a lot of my time in conversations with young people, many of them struggling with the weight of challenges in their lives. They too speak about the love they feel not only for families but also for people who helped them when they needed it. These people were strangers to them before the relationship that transformed their life.

We take for granted the notion of love in our close relationships with our family, partners, and friends. But what about deep relationships outside of the private sphere?

Is this a different kind of love? And how comfortable do we feel when, say, a young person says she feels love for the worker who helped her?

At the turn of 21st Century, Lyn Underwood, a social researcher, picked up on this issue and convened a diverse group of researchers, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists, and biologists to talk about what they came to call compassionate love.

She opened up the conference with a peculiar request. She said: “Reflect on a time in the past when you personally felt truly loved, loved for who you truly are, beyond the momentary circumstances, beyond what was expected of you. Pick a time that still holds particular importance for you. What was the relationship context and what were the circumstances? Close your eyes and try to relive it”.

What is compassionate love? In plain language, it is the giving of self for the good of the other. In technical terms, it is best captured by five features: (a) free choice for the other -the helper actively puts the other ahead of themselves, (b) valuing the other at a fundamental level no matter who they are or what they have done, (c) the cognitive capacity to understand the situation, one’s limitations as well as the other’s needs and the best ways to respond to such needs, (d) openness and receptivity, and (e) response of the “heart”, that is an affective response in addition to the attitudes and actions linked to compassionate love.

What is compassionate love? In plain language, it is the giving of self for the good of the other.

On the basis of this definition, Underwood articulated a framework for research so that others who followed this line of inquiry would have a foundation on which to build. Underwood is talking about compassionate love. But she is looking at it from the perspective of a scientist. Her foundations are scientific. It comprises three parts.

The first part builds an understanding about what it takes to develop the capacity for compassionate love. Unsurprisingly, there are genetic and environmental components.

Some of us, it seems, are more set up for compassionate love than others. And some of us spend more time in contexts that encourage compassionate love than others.

Some capacity is locked in. For instance, extraverts can find it easier than introverts to reach out to others. Or, to take another example, some studies show that empathic concern, the degree of sympathy and tenderness for others, may also to some extent be inherited.

But much of the capacity to love is malleable. Our experiences growing up matter. Being nurtured by a loving family, feeling good when we are surrounded by love, experiencing the compassion of our family members when we are struggling with something; all of this makes a difference to our own capacity for love in adulthood.

Certain contexts seem to be more auspicious for love than others. Being in spaces or places where there is a strong moral duty to help others, for instance when following the teachings of religions or in early years centres or schools where children are continually reminded to be mindful of how we treat others; this too helps to build the foundation for compassionate love.

The second part of Underwood’s model deals with the processes, the motives and discernment involved, when the loving tap gets turned on.

Some of us, it seems, are more set up for compassionate love than others. And some of us spend more time in contexts that encourage compassionate love than others. But it isn’t a constant. Those of us most capable of love can be harsh and uncaring. Those of us least capable can be loving.

The second part of Underwood’s model deals with the processes, the motives and discernment involved, when the loving tap gets turned on. It turns out that selfishness matters as much as selflessness.

Being good feeds our ego. And sometimes we are good to avoid guilt. Or we do good to look good in the eyes of others. And then there is the need to belong to that part of society that believes in goodness. In each of these examples we are good for the sake of ourselves. The helped might be a passive bystander.

Underwood excludes these motives from her definition of compassionate love. She is interested only in goodness that is driven, at least in part, by a desire to help another. There may be some ego involved, or there may be motives of self-expansion, but real compassionate love must also involve altruistic motives, obligations to help others and a deep concern for the well-being of the other.

This is not a philosophical or theoretical distinction. Underwood and others have done plenty of studies looking at diverse groups of people- students, women, people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, Trappist monks, for example.

The studies reveal the processes involved in the expression of love. For some it is instinctual. Underwood and her followers use the phrase ‘just acting’. In this process, helping is part of the identity of the helper. Their response is automatic. There isn’t much cognitive strain.

The outcome is not the well-being of the person in need of help, or even that of the person who might help. It is the purity of the process. It is whether compassionate love occurs.

For most of us there is a sort of agony. Faced with another struggling with life our brains go into overdrive. How do I balance my well-being with that of the other? Is this person close to me or a stranger? I can see how I can help, but would I feel comfortable with an offer of help from this person? Does this person deserve to be helped?

The third part of Underwood’s model focuses on the end result. The outcome is not the well-being of the person in need of help, or even that of the person who might help. It is the purity of the process. It is whether compassionate love occurs.

She paints three possible response-scenarios. One, the opportunity arises but nothing happens. No help or only inappropriate help is offered. Two, help is offered but the ‘heart’ of helper and helped is missing. This is altruistic behaviour, but it is not, in Underwood’s view, compassionate love. That only occurs in ‘third’ condition, when the help comes with and is accepted with ‘heart’.


How does the science of compassionate love make us think differently about helper-helped relationships in the context of multiple disadvantage? Rebeca turns to this question next week.

It is all about relationships

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