July 15, 2012

I was reading about how some social scientists have thought up an “easy” way to generate a feeling of compassion (through thinking about what we have in common with another person).  Part of me is thinking, “Oh, this is helpful, here’s a concept being translated from one language (spiritual) to another (social science) — even if it just primes the pump and gets things going, that could be a big help.”

Maybe it is, maybe it will be.  But I’m uneasy.

If we learn to cook from scratch, we learn some basic concepts and skills along the way and develop a sense for what may work in a new situation: the base for a white sauce, how to start bread, which ingredients to blend first, where a recipe lends itself to variation and where a change will up-end it.  If we just cook using prepared mixes and convenience foods, we may produce cooked food but not develop a feel for cooking.

I wonder whether this easy way to “increase compassion” has too much in common with learning to cook using convenience foods and prepared mixes.  Here I see the pitfall as being that using this shortcut, we learn to feel for others only insofar as they are like us (we already do something analogous, I think, with our categories of family, extended family, ethnic group, alumni group, friends, etc.).  Yes, we are all like each other in the important ways, but we still have to respect and love the otherness of the other, too, in order to develop robust compassion.  After all, a narcissist will like you to the extent they don’t distinguish you from them, that you two have commonality, and yet their feelings in this way have no carry-over when your and their interests and commonality diverge.

I am therefore a little dubious of this shortcut to compassion.

My doubt about shortcuts generally has deep roots, since I think I can see where some well-intentioned shortcuts in some religions have led to generations of confusion, if not to a holding back of spiritual progress.  But at least the fact of this shortcut idea reflects that social scientists have compassion on their radar, and that I can celebrate.  And maybe this shortcut will be useful as a stepping stone to a more thorough-going method of developing compassion.

The prayer and meditation part of spiritual development is one thing, but I also agree with the observation (which I think is Richard Rohr’s) that the experience of love and suffering are somehow necessary components for developing robust compassion.  I’m not sure what shortcut there is for those, in any language.


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