Compassion has a biological basis and an evolutionary advantage and yet, we often stifle it and deny its place in human culture and condition. Why do we do this? Why isn’t compassion a human instinct, automatic and regular, like our drive to seek out water, or a mate? Why isn’t it as easy as breathing?
It isn’t because the biological basis relates to potential. The way each of us is born with the potential to speak, read, and perform complex mathematical equations, it all depends very much on how you are raised and when you are introduced to the subject. Like most things it depends on your childhood.
Studies have shown that our negative feelings are much more inheritable than our positive feelings. We can receive tendencies toward depression, anxiety, and possibly cruelty from our parents but we don’t get much of their generosity, empathy, or compassion. That has to be taught to us. That has to be unlocked through healthy relationships early on and seeing other people treated as people and not merely means to ends.
I like to compare it to understanding and performing math. It seems the closest analogy. Some people will struggle with it and for some people, it will come easily. Most of us need to be taught how to do it, some of us will never get it, and there are some who will invent calculus in their spare time like it’s nothing.
Parents who have healthy boundaries and allow their children to develop with the right amount of support and care, and use reason to teach their children right from wrong obviously raise more empathetic children. Conversely, and also obviously, children who are abused, invalidated, and who do not observe their parents expressing compassion do not develop the ability to show it either.
Compassion can develop in reaction to us not being taught or shown how or why to feel it. Some develop a high-capacity for compassion even when a parent attempts to stifle it. While parents are a child’s first examples of how to behave and treat other people, a parent’s example can also be the first to be rejected as the child enters society, encounters new ideas, and becomes independent from the parent.
But the norm is probably that children turn out a lot like their parents. A cruel parent raises a cruel child who grows into a cruel adult.
But I question whether compassion the emotion is ever really eradicated in a person. I tend to believe that even the child raised in cruelty and insecurity grows into an adult who still feels compassion but just can’t express it. I believe that child becomes a person who uncomfortable with those feelings. To alleviate the anxiety associated with compassion the child learns to express them as the inverse feelings of cruelty or indifference.
That person is not at all beyond redemption. They can be made whole, healthy, and empathetic when they are shown that compassion is nothing to be afraid of. They need someone who will not give up on them and who will take the time to reason with them and lead by example. It’s tough, but it can be done.
There is room to argue that their capacity for kindness is stunted. Like a person who never learned to read as a child, but I believe they can still feel it on some level. I believe no one is beyond the ability to care about the welfare of another human being.
That unconditional love, that dedication and that time is something we desperately need as a society. We have raised and taught each other that compassion is weakness and is avoided at all costs by all but the most foolish. We need to show each other that compassion is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, the increased development and expression of compassion in each of us can only result in a better world for all of us to live in.
The same way we do whatever we can to make sure our children learn math, or science, or history so that they will have a better chance at navigating and succeeding in the adult world, we should be teaching our children how to express compassion. The same way we cultivate and encourage a child who exhibits a talent for math, music, or art, we should be doing our best to encourage the child who has a naturally higher capacity for compassion.
The same way we could never imagine telling a child that the ability to do well and learn in school was a weakness or an undesirable trait, we should never tell them that kindness, understanding, empathy, or caring are either.
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