Compassion as a Tool of Survival and Thriving
Despite the media portrayals of certain values being completely over represented: such as violence, greed, and the mantra of “survival of the fittest” (which we misinterpret to be those with physical strength, status, and wealth), what has allowed humans to survive over the millennia is compassion. Compassion is the only reason any us are here today. It is needed for our survival. It is everywhere, and is completely overlooked precisely because it is so common.
Children Need Years Of Compassionate Support
As any parent (or other sentient human) can tell you: human children are dependent on others for very, very long periods of time. They need years and years of support, care and protection before being able to survive in the world, In order to not kill the little darlings, caregivers (and general community members) have to be quite patient and show compassion to these beings year after year on a daily, hourly and minute by minute basis.
There were years of compassion shown to you day in and day out before you could even think in rudimentary ways about your place in the world. This is true of each of us. Think of all the times compassion was shown to you as a child. By your caregivers, by your teachers, by your neighbors, by complete strangers. Had compassion not been shown to you, you would not be here.
Even those who knew terrible cruelty were also shown compassion in countless instances over the years. The only other conditions necessary for survival through childhood and into adulthood are the items related to basic safety needs: enough food and water, shelter etc. And these were only provided to you due to compassion being shown towards you.
Social Bonds and Belonging
When considering compassion, we often think of love for family, friendships, and if we are lucky, other groups of community. These bonds are are forged based on compassion. We are able to show compassion for these we see favorably, and we are also able to do this when people we know and love are vulnerable at some level- giving someone a break when we know times are tough for them.
All the worlds’ religions espouse the benefits of compassion and of loving one another. Those things are repeated over and over in religious teachings. Showing compassion for others makes us feel good, and it also helps us “win friends and influence people”. People are generally greatly attracted to others who show compassion. They are respected, trusted, seen as desirable. And if you prefer, you can view these things as survival tactics. You can see treating others kindly as an instrumental dynamic rather than “true” altruism or compassion, I have no problem with that.
Politeness Exists in All Cultures
We are so immersed in our cultural contexts that we do not register politeness as very important, or as stemming from compassion. But it is the glue that keeps our cultures from collapsing. It is beyond the scope of this piece to thoroughly deconstruct politeness and etiquette from an evolutionary psychology perspective. But for a very short beginning: it is a formalized way to show friendliness towards others. Certainly politeness serves other purposes, but it is most obviously a codified way of showing goodwill, respect and compassion towards others. It is how we act when we are being nice and kind to each other.
In many ways our cultural public lives are predicated on norms of compassionate acts, and we barely notice them as such. If the majority of us stopped doing these things, our worlds as we know them would cease to exist.
We codify compassion into politeness in all sorts of realms. We show kindnesses to each other in hundreds of ways everyday. We bemoan theft, but hundreds of times in a week we respect other people’s property and do not charge into nice looking homes uninvited. We do not play our music at ear splitting levels at midnight. Most of us don’t let our dogs bark too much. The vast majority of us do not kick small children, even when they are incredibly annoying. This is due to compassion. Again, if you want to see these things as purely self centered ways not to get into trouble with others, I’m fine with that. It’s still respecting each other, and it is embedded in our cultural assumptions and norms. But it’s not often credited as the important- essential- part of survival that it plays.
Women as Keepers of Compassion
Another aspect that is also -not coincidentally- overlooked here is the way women are socialized: they are socialized to be compassionate, nice, polite, inclusive and nurturing. These are qualities that we often take for granted, or don’t even see. Yet these are the most pervasive and most functional features that exist in our cultural norms, values, and assumptions. These are the foundations that have allowed humans to survive.
In fact, women’s compassionate and relational orientations have often been undervalued, and at times outright dismissed or looked down upon. On the one hand, compassionate people are sought out and almost universally liked. Yet on the other hand, women’s contributions and priorities (in general), and overt displays of compassion are -quite unfortunately- often seen as not important***. Anyway, our conflicted attitudes towards compassion is an important clue about our cultural illness.
Here’s another. Humans are social creatures. Despite what some might want to believe, we care about what others think of us. Indeed, it appears the most hard headed and instrumentally focused “rational” among us are obsessed with our social standings. Think about how doggedly some work so they can achieve the right address in the right neighborhood, buy the right clothes, land the right job, drive the right cars, marry the right trophy spouses, etc.
So status matters, a lot. And compassion is an easy way to attain status… So to not exploit compassion as an easy way to attain higher social standing is…curious.
But the devaluing and dismissing of compassion is pretty easily explained by this: in order to be compassionate, one has to also allow oneself to be at least a little bit vulnerable– and that is a pretty tough sell for many folks.
Vulnerability is a big deal. Our issues with vulnerability have often made it difficult for us to respond with compassion towards others individually, and at the cultural levels in our social groups, business practices and governing policies.
***When we reach, say, 40% of C level execs being female, equal representation in government, can finally stop fighting over reproductive rights, and attain full equality in household tasks (Jack, looking’ at you right now), I’ll take that last line out, until then, it’s a social fact you might want to disagree with, but it’s a reality, at least in some realms.