The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Hard Compassion

Why do victims get our compassion and not others?

I didn't really like "Jim", a mid-seventies guy at my gym who was always telling me that he was lifting "almost as much weight as you" and that he was a former arm wresting champion. Jim would do multiple sets on machines while I waited and was hard of hearing so I'd have to yell "Can I work in with you?" to get his attention.

But Jim was a morning regular and I slowly warmed to him, but I certainly didn't seek him out for conversation like I did others while resting between sets. He was weirdly competitive with me since I was 30 years younger and in pretty solid shape.

Then, no Jim. Maybe his schedule changed. Or, maybe he had gotten ill like many of the older folks I saw in the morning. I didn't think much of it until he returned to the gym after a year's absence. I caught his eye and went over and shook his hand. He said he had been ill but was trying to work out regularly again. "Great, glad you're back" I said and continued my workout. Frankly, I didn't want to hear about his heart attack or the prostate he had had removed.

Jim was there again the next day, and I greeted him again. He told me he had just turned 80 and showed me an engraved bracelet he wore. I couldn't read it in the lights' glare and assumed he wanted to compare how much weight we were lifting and was establishing his age.

Then he said "I don't really feel like a man now." I paused, unsure what he was talking about. "See that woman, she's my wife and now she has to drive me here. You see I got that disease...." and he showed me his bracelet again. "I'm not sure how to say it, but it's like 'Altzhers'." "Alzheimer's?," I asked. Yes, that was it.

Jim's face blushed. I told him he was doing great because he had remembered me after a year. He said he wasn't sure why he kept working out. I assured him it was good for his brain and he should continue. We chatted for 10 minutes until silence caused us to part. I left feeling sad that such a vital body had a buggy brain.

Later, I reflected on why I had had so little compassion for Jim before I knew of his disease, and why it was so easy for me to empathize with him once I did. Compassion can be felt when our brains release oxytocin as I discuss in my book The Moral Molecule. Jim's previous competition with me had most likely spiked my testosterone, a potent oxytocin inhibitor as I have discussed earlier. When there was no more competition, I could more easily understand Jim as a man suffering with his impending mortality--something we will all do. I could share his fears, but only when I saw him as a victim.

The same thing happens with panhandlers. Is this a scam they pull rather than get a real job? Maybe they like living in the urban outdoors. Maybe they have made their choices and don't deserve our compassion.

Hard compassion is caring for those who don't seem to deserve our attention. They need our attention precisely because they are difficult.  Hard compassion trains our brains, as the Dalai Lama has advocated, to live compassionate lives.

Compassion is hard, but it does get easier.

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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