When it comes to compassion, altruism, and empathy; it seems like many doubt that some possess naturally greater amounts of these traits than they themselves do. Their beliefs appear to be limited by the ranges of their own levels of them. If someone demonstrates such caring and giving behaviors in quantities greater than their own, then they tend to attribute this to ulterior motives, such as manipulation or control. They do this because this is what it would mean if they themselves were doing it (or perhaps because this is what someone did to them in the past). Many don’t want to believe that others could be better than them (ego issues), so their defenses generate the beliefs that support these issues (e.g. ulterior motives), and then they attribute such negative intentions to the acts of kindness offered to them. Such egocentrism determines many more of our beliefs about people than we may realize, and limits our ability to heal and grow.
Ego issues can also mislead us by creating black and white, all-or-nothing belief systems around those we interact with. For example, if we have inadequacy issues, then we may see others as all good (they can do no wrong), or all bad (they can do no right); and this belief is usually based on how they treat us, not who they are. If they make us feel good or right, then they can do no wrong, and we accept their motives as pure and positive, often ignoring obvious red flags. If they disagree with us about something, causing us to feel potentially bad or wrong, then we may instantly place them in a category of being all wrong, regardless of the truth or facts to the contrary. The same applies to issues like trust, abandonment, and control. And the interesting thing is that it can be the same person, doing the same things, who is perceived as being the opposite of how they may have been a few minutes or hours ago; simply because they may have said something that triggered an issue response. Obviously they did not suddenly become a different person (unless they have an extreme form of PTSD, or Dissociative Identity Disorder). In the absence of such conditions, we are perceiving them differently because an issue was triggered within us (not because they have suddenly changed into a different person).
Accepting The Existence of Unconditional Kindness and Caring
Since some people are truly selfless and giving, compassionate and altruistic, empathic and caring; whether we are or not; we may benefit from realizing and accepting this fact. It does not need to be a threat to our ego. It can be an inspiration to our hope, trust, and growth. And since compassion has been linked to improved health, greater happiness, and increased longevity; we could all benefit from allowing its sweet light to shine more freely through the eyes of our hearts.
I am one of these people, and have been throughout my life. As a child, my compassion and empathy for others were unusual, but were praised and appreciated by those I loved and respected. The generosity that flowed out of this compassion and empathy was also highly valued and acknowledged. After my hormones kicked in, and as I became a young adult, I noticed that, when I expressed the same traits, some people would respond very differently to them; acting as if I was doing something harmful rather than helpful, something negative rather than positive, something malefic rather than beneficial to them. This confused and saddened me a little, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it at first, because I was too busy being myself and living life. I have always loved caring and giving, and believe I feel even better when doing it than those on the receiving end. From this point, when people took the time to get to know me, they always realized that my giving, contrary to their usual experiences, came with no strings. Some would seem a little suspicious at first, if they had issues or did not really know me; but would eventually realize that my love and giving were truly unconditional and free from other motives. When people did have reactions, and when we were able to discuss them; most said that they initially felt uncomfortable because my generosity reminded them of their lack of it, or that they felt they did not deserve it, or that they thought I wanted something in return. Each of these responses reflects unresolved ego issues (inadequacy/guilt, inadequacy/unworthiness, and trust/control/victimization, respectively). Those who have known me for a while just smile and say “He’s always like that! That’s just what he does!” Being one of these people, and loving the fact that I am, and wanting to encourage it, and its acceptance by others; I am suggesting that we all challenge our existing beliefs about compassionate, altruistic, and empathic people; allowing for their redefinition and expansion; on a person-by-person, or case-by-case basis. We do not want to go too far, and open ourselves up to those who actually are trying to manipulate us through such gestures. I am also suggesting that we exercise and strengthen our own muscles of compassion, altruism, and empathy. One possible way to discover the truth about others is to discuss their apparent generosity with people who have known them for a long time. I have been doing so much of it, for so long; and it is such a natural part of who I am; that I do not usually even remember most of what I have done. People will come up to me years later and thank me for something, and I have usually forgotten all about it. I like being able to love and give without people trying to turn it into something ugly. But if they do, this is a reflection of their own beliefs, not of my intentions; and their beliefs are not a requirement of my own. Let’s let beauty be beautiful, and make more of it; instead of trying to make it ugly because we have less of it than someone else.
Compassion and Health
Neurosurgeon James Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, part of the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences; says “We can be healthier, live longer, and make the world a better place by exploring our potential for compassionate behavior.” One of Dr. Doty’s goals is to help people strengthen their compassion muscle, and then show them how their mental and physical health has improved as a result. His ongoing research demonstrates that we have the ability to increase our capacity for kindness and caring, and that when we do we will see dramatic improvements in our personal relationships, significant decrease in inflammation, improvement in cardiac function, and increase in our telomere length (the DNA that protects the ends of our chromosomes), which increases longevity. Although genes clearly play a role in our baseline levels of compassion, altruism, and empathy; Dr. Doty’s research shows us that we can learn to increase them, and become healthier and happier when doing so.
Photo Credit: Brave Heart