by Roy Herndon Smith
The question I am seeking to answer in these posts is, How do we live more compassionately with each other and all beings? The danger in this question is the tendency, rooted in currently dominant and seemingly commonsense assumptions about “human nature,” to think that compassion and words associated with it—for instance, empathy and love—refer to virtues that we must learn, achieve, or strive to possess. In fact, as sociobiologists and anthropologists, such as Sara Blaffer Hrdy, observe, we human beings are born empathizing, or feeling with, each other, including with (com) each other’s suffering (passion). We don’t survive outside of familial and communal meshes of compassionate interactions. The first answer to my question is thus that the foundational practices for becoming more compassionate are identifying, attending to, and affirming the everyday ways we and others are already compassionately interacting.
Hrdy introduces her book, Mothers and Others, with the following examples of and statements about everyday compassion:
Each year 1.6 billion passengers fly to destinations around the world. Patiently we line up to be checked and patted down by someone we’ve never seen before. We file on board an aluminum cylinder and cram our bodies into narrow seats, elbow to elbow, accommodating one another for as long as the flight takes.
With nods and resigned smiles, passengers make eye contact and then yield to latecomers pushing past. When a young man wearing a backpack hits me with it as he reaches up to cram his excess paraphernalia into an overhead compartment, instead of grimacing or baring my teeth, I smile (weakly), disguising my irritation. Most people on board ignore the crying baby, or pretend to. A few of us are even inclined to signal the mother with a sideways nod and a wry smile that says, “I know how you must feel.” We want her to know that we understand, and that the disturbance she thinks her baby is causing is not nearly as annoying as she imagines, even though we also can intuit, and so can she, that the young man beside her, who avoids looking at her and keeps his eyes determinedly glued to the screen of his laptop, does indeed mind every bit as much as she fears.
From a tender age and without special training, modern humans identify with the plights of others and, without being asked, volunteer to help and share, even with strangers.
This ability to identify with others and vicariously experience their suffering is not simply learned: It is part of us. … It is a quirk of mind that serves humans well in all sorts of social circumstances, not just acts of compassion but also hospitality, gift-giving, and good manners—norms that no culture is without.
Humans are born predisposed to care how they relate to others.
(Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mothers and Others (pp. 1-2, 4, 6). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. )