The compelling case for fostering greater compassion in the world
On Wednesday 10 October 2018, it is world mental health day and much of the discussion will be focussed on raising awareness of mental health across the world. As someone who promotes the importance of positive mental health in the work that I do, I do not underestimate the challenge that mental health advocates have in ensuring that mental health is truly embraced and understood at all levels within organisations and in every corner of the world.
It is tempting for me to want to talk about the importance of mental health and how, by investing in mental health, we can help people fulfil their true potential at work and in life more broadly, but I suspect there will be an infinite number of news articles and blogs on just that. Instead, I want to focus on a fundamental aspect of our humanity which I feel is lacking currently. In fact, I was prompted to write this blog last week, when at the end of a talk I gave, a really kind man came up to me to at the end and said that I needed to record the talk so he could re-listen to it whenever he felt the need – it was such an important and powerful message.
An important message
The message I conveyed to that man and to the others listening in the room that evening was not my message, I was merely the messenger. In fact, up until a couple of years ago, I was blissfully ignorant that such a message even existed. Had someone spoken to me about it just a few years earlier, I would have thought they were evangelical and the idea ridiculous. Certainly, such a message had no place in the society we lived in, let alone a city such as London where smiling at someone in the street or on the tube might get you arrested. Yet, as is often the case, I was wrong. It turns out that the message is one that we need to heed more than ever.
We live in a world currently where polarisation of thought and of opinion has never been greater. Pick up a newspaper or tune into the political rhetoric being broadcast on television and you can feel the flames of division being eagerly fanned. We are encouraged to choose sides. If I am right, the other person must, by default, be wrong. Opinions must either be black or they must be white. There is no longer any room for shades of grey. Yet, it is within those shades of grey that we are able to reconnect with our common humanity. Without recognising the commonality that people share, we become just another number, another statistic – we are no longer seen as a human being and we no longer see others as such.
At a time when we are encouraged to think about ourselves and what our own needs are, I believe that we desperately need to remember to cultivate empathy and compassion for others as well. Our gaze is far too narrow, we have stopped seeing the beauty that exists in others. If we disagree with someone on one topic, then we are left to believe that we must disagree with them on everything. We are no longer encouraged to find the common ground that we share. Yet, as the late Labour MP, Jo Cox, infamously said during her maiden speech: “we are far more united and have more in common than that which divides us”, if only we were brave enough to seek it out.
A story of compassion
Let me share with you the story that I told last week at the talk. Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing on the escalator on your way to work one morning. In your left hand you are holding a cake that you have baked for one of your best friends and colleagues. You spent a lot of time decorating the cake and you can’t wait to see your friend’s face when they see it. Suddenly from your left, you are shoved sideways by someone rushing down the escalator and you drop the cake and it tumbles down the last few remaining steps and lands at the bottom of the escalator, in pieces, ruined. The person does not look back and does not apologise.
Imagine, for a moment, how you would feel if that actually happened to you. What emotions would you experience? How would it affect the rest of your day? It is worth pausing momentarily to reflect. I know plenty of people who have told me they would feel angry and p*ssed off, and that it would likely affect the rest of their day negatively. But what if I told you that the person who knocked the cake from your hand, was in fact rushing to the hospital to be at the bedside of a loved one who was critically injured? That they simply hadn’t been aware of what had happened, because they were so distraught. How do you feel now? What emotions has that broader context elicited?
What if I added a further layer of context and told you how that same person had failed to rush to the hospital just 6-months earlier, for someone else they cared deeply about. As a result, they had missed the opportunity to say goodbye. For me, the additional context dissipates any anger or resentment I might feel towards that person. The problem is that we are far more likely to judge others based on their actions rather than their intentions. That judgement not only harms our relationship with others but it also harms us physically. Nelson Mandela once famously said that ‘resentment is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to suffer’. We are the ones that suffer. We are the ones producing chemicals inside of us that act like poison if left to fester.
The story I shared did most likely not elicit compassion, it elicited empathy, although some of you may well have felt an urge to ease the other person’s suffering once you knew more of the facts. Compassion is more than simply the ability to empathise with another person’s suffering. It involves the desire to want to ease their suffering and is comprised of three parts:
1. Noticing another person’s suffering;
2. Empathetically feeling that person’s pain; and
3. Acting in a manner intended to ease their suffering.
Of course, it might just be that the person who bumped into you, who was rude to you, who cut you up on the road or who [enter any number of situations that have p*ssed you off recently] was just rude, obnoxious and self-centered. The point is, we rarely have any way of knowing the full picture, so why not assume positive intent. Perhaps that person is suffering. Even if they did intend to be rude, deep down they probably aren’t a rude person and if they are, then imagine how they must treat themselves when no one else is watching. May be they are lashing out to ease their own suffering. If you are familiar with Brené Brown’s research, you will know that most of us are in fact doing the best we can with the resources we have, each and every day.
It might be easy to point at someone and judge them for what they have or haven’t done, but we will be basing our judgement on very shaky foundations. It was Thomas Sowell who once said that ‘it takes considerable knowledge to realise the extent of our own ignorance’ and I could not agree more. Far too many of us are ignorant (I include myself in that statement to this very day). I have friends and family members who have (and some who still do) experience bouts of serious depression. I used to show very little compassion for what they went through, because I simply did not understand how their experience of the world could be so very different from my own.
If you were to ask me how tired I would feel if I were to climb to the base camp of Mount Everest, I would probably reply “pretty damn tired”. Yet for someone in the grips of depression, that is the feeling that they experience most mornings before they have even mustered the energy to pull themselves out of bed. The rest of their day is spent climbing to the metaphorical summit. Yet, many of us expect people to simply ‘snap out of it’, I know I did. To foster compassion we need to learn to truly listen to others. It begins with the genuine intention to perceive and understand what others may be experiencing. Compassionate listening involves being curious and genuinely wanting to learn another person’s perspective, and not wanting to fit our own pre-conceived story to their explanation. Only then will we truly be able to connect with those around us.
By practising genuine empathy and compassion, we are better able to cultivate mindfulness and connection in ourselves and others. This has the effect of lowering our fight or flight response and promoting the release of Oxytocin, the social bonding hormone that helps us feel deeply connected to others. It enables us to see others as human beings rather than just another statistic and we are able to better grasp what others may be experiencing. Linking back to the start of this post about World Mental Health Day. Every single person has mental health, whether good or bad and whether they are aware of it or not. According to the Mental Health Foundation, far too many of us are either struggling or actively suffering currently, so the more we can raise awareness and provide people with concrete ways to alleviate that suffering the better.
Compassion is something we are born with (I won't go into the science here, but suffice to say there is compelling evidence). However, if we fail to cultivate it, we forget to tap into our true human self and, as a result, we become the poorer for it and suffer more because of it. There are lots of ways to foster greater compassion, including through active listening, completing random acts of kindness, as well as undertaking specific meditation practices such as Loving-Kindness Meditation. If you are curious or would like to learn more, please feel free to reach out to us firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 993 4402.