Amanda Scott

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"Compassion is the radicalism of our time" - The Dalai Lama

Why is compassion so difficult?

Compassion – that feeling of distress at the suffering of others that is combined with the desire to alleviate it – is in short supply in the world today. We only have to look at a random sample of world news – the indifference to the plight of refugees; the anger and hate routinely expressed by internet trolls; the political gridlock around energy efficient measures to address climate change, while bushfires are already raging  and farmers are struggling with drought, to see that there is very little action being taken to alleviate enormous suffering. On a personal front, it can be hard to find compassion in our relationships and our circles. Yet, when we do, it is transformative: of our relationships, of our lives and of our communities.

Moreover, we are hardwired neurologically to act with compassion. Jamil Zaki’s brain imaging work at Stanford, for example, shows that being kind to others activates similar reward pathways in the brain as eating chocolate. Our neurochemistry rewards us much more when we act in the interests of the group compared to when we act with self-interest. Imagine if we could work together to harness all of our inherent compassion on a global scale; what wouldn’t be possible?

Fundamental to compassion, of course, is empathy. To feel another’s suffering is to enter into their experience. As Atticus Finch famously advised his daughter Scout: “You never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (To Kill a Mockingbird, H. Lee, 1960). This takes both imagination and emotional intelligence. It is far deeper and more profound than simply “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The ‘Golden Rule’ is limited by culture, context and maturity, among other things. Many times I have had to explain to a young person that something that they thought was humorous or insignificant was, actually, hurtful and offensive. This takes time and patience, to unpack the narrative and really allow both parties to hear each other’s stories. By the Golden Rule, I may have treated you as I don’t mind being treated. Once I exercise compassion, I desist that behaviour because I know that it will cause you pain.

This is particularly difficult when we are faced with somebody’s pain or shame as expressed through anger. It is natural to feel defensive when we are under attack, to respond to the rage rather than remain calm and try to understand what lies beneath. At GGS, we often speak of people’s “icebergs”, whereby we work on the principle that you cannot know what burdens others carry so that sometimes, all unknowing, you bump up against someone’s iceberg. This is when a conflict can appear apparently out of nowhere. It is a useful tool to apply to oneself, as well. If I am tipped into anger in response to an email or a comment, I need to look inwards to understand my reaction, rather than seek immediately to blame others. Again, this kind of attitude takes time and maturity to develop. It would be unreasonable to expect adolescents to have it innately (although some do); rather, it is the power of the conversations that take place that help young people to develop their emotional intelligence and empathy for others’ experiences.

Compassion is not simply empathy, however: there needs also to be the desire to take action in order to alleviate the suffering of others. That action can be immediate and targeted; for example, a fundraising drive triggered by a disaster often sees a hugely generous response. But I would argue that throwing money into a bucket does not require compassion. A truly compassionate response is more thoughtful and lasts longer.  Compassion fuels the existence of groups like RAR (Rural Australians for Refugees) or Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children.  It sustains long term protest and action for change.  In personal relationships, compassion prompts hospital and prison visits; the cooking of casseroles and the baking of cakes for neighbours in need; it triggers the kindness of friends who drop everything just to listen to the bereaved.  Compassion is the voice that prompts us to ask, “Are you ok?” and our silence as we listen in order to understand and provide comfort.

Happily, research supports the importance of compassion.  The work of specialists like Dr Tony Fernando at the University of Auckland have demonstrated that exercising compassion improves subjects’ resilience to stress, addresses burnout and reduces loneliness.  Dr Fernando will be discussing the science of compassion further at our upcoming Insight Series event.

The Buddhists teach that “life is suffering”: compassion is the antidote to that suffering. Christianity wrestles with “the problem of evil”: compassion is the solution to that problem.  Why is compassion so difficult? Because it is so important.  Like all human experiences that facilitate growth and fulfilment, compassion is necessary for development as a whole and rounded individual.  Compassion takes us out of ourselves into connection with others, providing meaning and purpose by serving something greater. Dare to imagine a world where all practised compassion: now that would be something truly radical.

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Amanda Scott

Amanda Scott is the Director of Student Wellbeing at Geelong Grammar School. With a M.Ed in Student Wellbeing from Melbourne University, as well as almost 25 years’ experience teaching in both Australian and international schools, Amanda brings a wealth of expertise, maturity and compassion to her leadership role at GGS.