The world is suffering from a severe lack of compassion. Though this isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s one I’ve noticed strongly in recent months and was intensified after reading The Power of Self-Compassion by Mary Welford. Though I believe I do show compassion, because of my desire to improve the world, I can’t stop thinking that I can do more. Many of us walk through the world with tunnel vision, concerned only with getting through the day and blocking out certain issues that stir feelings of sympathy within us. To circumvent the lack of compassion in the world, we need to stop shrugging problems off—whether those problems are personal, just between friends, or even global—and deal with them.

How we lack compassion

With the state of the world economy as it is, employment is one area where we as a society are lacking compassion. One tough locale to be unemployed is the United Kingdom. The British government forces some unemployed people to work at grocery stores and similar businesses for less than minimum wage. The rationale for this is that it allows the unemployed to contribute to society and receive job training. However, many of the unemployed have been laid off from professional jobs, and have university degrees or college diplomas, so implying that they’re untrained doesn’t make a lot of sense. Plus, haven’t they been contributing to society by paying taxes for years?

Even disabled people are sometimes forced to seek employment now, since the government is attempting to cut back on the number of people who receive disability allowances. Recently, a legally blind man has been deemed fit for work and must pray that he wins an appeal to get his benefits back. While things aren’t quite as bad in the United States or Canada, fully employed people often look down on the unemployed, blaming them for losing their jobs, instead of realizing that so many job losses occur due to factors outside of their control. Rather than taking this harsh attitude, it may be helpful if we show the unemployed some compassion and give them moral support as they search for new employment.

This lack of compassion towards the unemployed and others who are financially struggling can carry over into romantic relationships. I use an online forum that’s intended for life advice, but has recently become a place where certain people demonstrate judgmental, insensitive views. One user complained that her boyfriend is still living with his parents into his twenties, even though the whole family is recovering from a business failure, and he’s a supportive boyfriend in several major ways (for example, he often helps her take care of her child, whom he is not the father of). There are also numerous posts from people of both genders saying they want to leave their partners since they lost their jobs, even though it sounds like the partners are putting in decent amounts of effort searching for new jobs. On a somewhat different, but even worse note, on another forum I read a post from a man in which he said he was going to leave his critically ill wife since she’s no longer able to have sexual intercourse. While this post may not be representative of the norm, it and other posts mentioned have received support from forum users, encouraging the original posters to throw their relationships away because their partner may have one or two traits that are bothersome, or may be struggling with a serious problem. On the other hand, when posters do suffer breakups and harbour feelings of loyalty towards their former lovers, many responders are unsympathetic. They say things like, “Move on; it was only six months. There are tons of other men/women out there (as if finding a new partner is as easy as getting a new pair of socks). Don’t be needy.”

“Needy” is a word that’s thrown around a lot lately. Neediness seems to result from not having a strong contentment and soothing system, which is one of the human faculties that helps us regulate emotional stress, according to Welford. Our contentment and soothing systems are developed and strengthened when we are shown compassionate care, but weakened when we are not. With such little demonstration of care these days, it’s likely that they have, in fact, been weakened. When our systems are so weak that we’re unable to soothe ourselves properly, we aren’t able to give others much support, either. Therefore, weak systems tend to result in increased insensitive behaviour not only towards ourselves, but towards others, and the vicious cycle carries on.

Why we lack compassion

Perhaps the world has always lacked genuine compassion, and a lot of time spent on the Internet has just brought this to light for me. In his book Lack of Character, philosopher John Doris puts forth the idea that none of us have globally compassionate characters, so our compassionate behaviour is situationally based. He makes reference to several decades-old studies that demonstrate this. Without getting into specific statistics, the studies he discusses have revealed that:

Walking by homeless man - The world's lack of compassion

  • No matter what subjects acted like outside of experimental settings, their perceived level of hurry and whether they recently found a dime or not determined how helpful they would be to fellow citizens
  • Most people (although often with some degree of uncomfortability), if instructed to by an authority figure, would continue to give another person electric shocks even after the person has screamed in pain and then has become unresponsive (with this, Doris makes reference to the famous Milgram experiment)
  • If given the power of leadership positions, most people would engage in unsympathetic and even cruel behaviour towards their subjects (Doris uses the well-known Stanford Prison Experiment to illustrate this)

Creating a compassionate society

Looking at the first point above, the solution to the lack of compassion present in the world seems simple, in theory—we just need reduced stress levels and more positive reinforcement. But to achieve this, we need to feel good about ourselves, which would lead us to experience less stress and behave more positively towards both ourselves and others. However, when we encounter all the unsympathetic behaviour already present, we’re unlikely to feel very good. We need the chicken to get the egg, and we need the egg to get the chicken, but we have neither.

Considering the implications of the two well-known studies mentioned, it appears that in order to create a more compassionate society we must reduce the influence of certain power structures. In other words, it’s easier to change the subjects as opposed to changing the leaders. As subjects, we need to think for ourselves and trust ourselves when we think something—like delivering an electric shock to another person—is against the principles of compassion, instead of being followers. We also need to learn to act peacefully of our own accord, so there’s less need for strong rule-making structures in society. Perhaps meditation can help us with this. One thing is for certain: we cannot break down the power structures by force, since doing so would just replace one application of power with another. Our method of resistance must be peaceful.

We’ve already seen some mild peaceful resistance to society’s current power structures; for example, over the past few years the number of us pursuing non-traditional employment has increased, and more and more of us are resisting traditional power sources to live off the grid. The ultimate solution would be for all of us to gradually withdraw from society as is, and then re-form in order to start from scratch with new values (as if we were starting from the Rawlsian original position.) However, it’s probably too idealistic to expect this to happen during our lifetimes. As individuals, what we can do every day is resist the temptation to shrug off the problems of ourselves and others, and engage our empathetic faculties instead.

After I completed this piece, I was pleasantly surprised by something that happened later that day, which may have been the universe’s way of telling me things aren’t completely hopeless when it comes to compassion. I shared a Kijiji ad on my Facebook page in which a single mother posted that she had lost her job as a result of her child being seriously ill, so she didn’t have enough money to buy winter clothes or diapers. Within a few hours of posting, two of my friends had offered to help her out, one donating the supplies requested and another offering occasional free child care. That was only two out of around 200 people on my Facebook list, but it’s sometimes surprising what two caring individuals can accomplish [I recognize that there are likely other compassionate people who didn’t offer to help because they didn’t see the post, had nothing to give, or had been disillusioned by scam artists asking for goods and money online—that’s certainly understandable]. While I don’t know the single mother personally, I bet she would agree, given her somewhat desperate situation, that sometimes a little bit really does go a long way.

Want to practice being more compassionate? Check out COMPASSION TRAINING: CBCT compassion meditation may boost neural basis of empathy>>

image 1: ucumari (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND); image 2: Veronique (Creative Commons BY-NC)