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, no matter how tough or wounded we are, are here today. It is needed for our survival. It is everywhere, and is completely overlooked precisely because it is so common.
When considering compassion, we first think of familial bonds and deep friendships. 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 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 as a bonus, it also helps us “win friends and influence people” to steal from the title of a book. 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, it helps us get our own needs met, it helps us be protected from the actions of others, it helps us know what to expect from others, and I’m sure it serves a dozen more functions that I am overlooking, but it is most obviously a codified way of showing goodwill 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. We show small bits of compassion towards others every time we interact politely with others, whether it’s standing in line peaceably at concerts or games, greeting people at church, smiling at strangers, or holding doors open for each other. Each and every time we are polite towards our family and friends, the wait staff in restaurants, the grocery clerks, or to coworkers, we are showing compassion to others, even if it’s just to get our own needs met. Most of us take turns at stop lights, interact politely when we shop, and do not take food out of each other’s hands, even when we are really hungry. 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, and control our own desires and needs both so they do not infringe on the rights of others, and because that is the compassionate thing to do. 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 take our neighbors’ lawn ornaments, or play our music at ear splitting levels at midnight. Most of us don’t let our dogs bark too much, or scratch other peoples cars out of envy. We do not verbally assault others who are already sitting at desired tables at restaurants, movies or sporting events, or cut in line at banks or grocery stores. We refrain from resorting to violence or saying “Just Shut The Hell Up!” on almost all the occasions when we become irked by others during (real life) conversations with them. 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 we 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. Let’s go back to the item about not kicking small children: 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. It’s really that simple. These are qualities that women are known for and what we can all agree makes us the most happy in life.
Millions of compassionate interactions have been shown to each and every human. 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.
Compassion And Vulnerability Are Linked
In order to actually show kindness to others, we have to trust that doing so will not get us killed or lead us to otherwise end up at a significant disadvantage. In other words, we have to be willing and able to be at least a little vulnerable in order to actually be kind to other people.
Not coincidentally, it is absolutely normal to not be comfortable with being vulnerable in the aftermath of trauma. This dynamic is further deconstructed in the book, but that isn’t the only barrier, not by far.
In America and much of Western cultures, we have also actively socialized half the population not to be vulnerable or show vulnerability. Men are supposed to be strong, confident, and Ram tough, just like their trucks. In our general ways of socializing males, the message is loud and clear: Real Men don’t do vulnerability, they are supposed to be self reliant and self sufficient. This is encoded into America and its ethos of rugged individualism. It’s what American is built on, and how the West was won. This is obviously not news, many others have observed how limited traditional masculine emotional lives end up being-and in fact are supposed to be- due to this kind of socialization. The socialization and the lack of ease with vulnerability are real and pervasive barriers for men to -even in the 21st century- easily turn to compassionate responses instead of competitiveness as “go to” strategies in social situations.
We Need To Be Vulnerable To Be Life Affirming
Several essential life affirming qualities require some level of vulnerability to be present. When carefully deconstructed, it becomes absolutely clear that a certain amount of vulnerability is always present when people experience and express qualities of compassion, generosity, trust towards others, and collaboration. A lack of ability or willingness to be vulnerable leads to real difficulty in experiencing those emotions, and they become undervalued. If we are unable or unwilling to be vulnerable, the lack will keep us disconnected from others. Vulnerability is also needed to “take another’s perspective”. When we can’t do that as easily, we’ll not be able to develop a good awareness of others. That lack of awareness then further minimizes the sense of the value of things like collaboration and collectivism.
With that lack of awareness of others, we can do harm to others without feeling as remorseful about it. When people are unable to take another’s perspective, it defacto creates opportunities for people to justify things like genocide or less odious forms of empire building. Obviously genocide and colonization/empire building lead to…trauma and the normalizing of it.
When we are in trauma response modes, we are not willing to be vulnerable, and instead we are focused on our safety. We “need” to feel secure, and to do that we prioritize control over respectful compassion. Lacking the ability to trust, we stay consumed with fears about others, with fears of losing our sense of power and control, with losing our senses of security. We think in terms of “losing face”, “losing our standing”, “losing power” in the larger cultural climates we’ve created.
So, our collective unease with vulnerability has contributed to many profound cultural issues. By trying to eliminate vulnerability, we’ve not only robbed half the population from having easier access to several life affirming and positive emotional states, but we’ve also lost sight of how important compassion and kindness really is to our species. We’ve lost sight of the very qualities that are needed to actually resolve our problems and learn to thrive in the Anthropocene.