The Struggle to Be Human

It can be hard to hold onto basic humanity amid suffering and evil.

Posted Mar 17, 2019

We have to struggle to maintain a sense of humanity amid terrorist acts, murders, child maltreatment, caustic politics, wildfires, and raging storms. The deluge of suffering is likely to worsen before it subsides and further desensitizes our more humane instincts along the way. Recall the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

Imagine a joke with the punch line: “Compassion isn’t what it used to be.” The joke isn’t funny, but it strikes a nerve. Human compassion developed in a much smaller and more insulated world. Now the news on our screens, the poverty we see on the way to work, the crime all around us, the abject suffering in millions of faces cry out for a compassionate response that greatly exceeds the capacity of all but the sainted.

Even intimate compassion, with clear personal reward built-in, is under more pressure than ever before. It used to be activated by something drastic like illness, grief, a rock crushing the foot, or a tiger chewing off an arm. Now we must be sympathetic with a partner who feels slighted by someone at work, or sad because a friend hasn’t returned a call, or anxious about a traffic ticket, or worried that a cousin might ask for a loan.

In intimate relationships, the dread of compassion-failure (inability to sustain it in the long run) stirs feelings of inadequacy and unfortunate adaptations, like intimacy-avoidance, controlling behavior, chronic criticism, or dominance. At the same time, getting sympathy has become an entitlement, almost entirely divorced from giving it. My clients who complain the most about lack of empathy in others rarely show it to anyone who doesn’t agree with them or “validate” them. When they receive less sympathy than they perceive themselves to be entitled to, they grow resentful, which guarantees that they’ll experience considerably less sympathy. It’s hard to be sympathetic to someone who is resentful. Although we need to sympathize with resentful partners, the law of emotion reciprocity (you get back what you put out) predicts that any increase in resentment causes a commensurate decrease in compassion.

We're oblivious to the power of emotion reciprocity when it comes to resentment, despite experience telling us that it almost always makes things worse. We don't learn from experience, because we're so intent on justifying resentment. As soon as we feel it, we become prosecuting attorneys presenting evidence of how bad or unfair the objects of resentment truly are.

For that matter, we're pretty good at justifying everything we do. Why should we look at sadness we cannot cheer, hurt we cannot soothe, distress we cannot relieve? Why should we face the hungry we cannot feed, the homeless we cannot house, the criminals we cannot rehabilitate? The fight to hold onto a sense of humanity amid suffering and evil creates inner voices of conflict, powered by covert guilt and shame, however, concealed by justification. In most of us, these voices are faint. In some, they bellow. And some attempt to drown them out with self-obsession.

Of course, no one could function in a complex world if steadily attuned to the pain of others. Feeling compassion without acting on its motivation to help makes us feel powerless. Sympathy that is powerless eventually turns to contempt—the force behind “victim-blaming.” The German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously said that the first time we see a beggar on the street, we’ll give him a coat. The second time (when we realize he’s still poor), we’ll call a policeman to have him removed.


So how do we empower ourselves to retain a sense of humanity without being overwhelmed by the suffering and evil that abounds in the world?

The first step is to recognize that we like ourselves better when in touch with our more humane emotions. Specifically, we like ourselves more when compassionate than when not. If you doubt that, pay attention to your body and thoughts the next time you fail at compassion. You’ll notice tension, accelerated heart rate, a torrent of negative thoughts, and some form of anger. We need adrenaline to violate basic humanity. When the adrenaline wears off, we crash into a depressed mood, unless we’re able to stay resentful, with its low dose of stress hormones that keep us energized at great personal cost.

Self-compassion is sympathy for one’s hardship or suffering, with a motivation to heal, improve, and repair. The motivation to heal, improve, and repair differentiates self-compassion from the powerlessness of self-pity. Self-compassion allows us to balance our long-term best interests with the rewards of compassion for strangers and the necessity of compassion for loved ones.

Self-compassion lowers emotional reactivity and raises sensitivity to the deeper vulnerabilities of others, which in turn allows us to respect differences between the self and others. It builds respect for the dignity of others, which in turn enhances the sense of self. (We like ourselves more for respecting others than yielding to the impulse to devalue them.) When self-compassion mediates physical and mental resources, compassion for others is empowering rather than burdensome, self-enhancing rather than threatening, and self-renewing instead of exhausting.

How to Feed Your Sense of Humanity

Protect children. I worry about the fate of a society that fails to protect its children. I tell all my clients that my primary clients are their children. (This is no conflict of interest; it’s impossible for parents to be well when their children are not.) I try to be mindful of protecting children when I drive, especially when I’m cut off or otherwise encounter a jerk on the road. There are children in so many cars; wasting emotional energy on the offender might endanger them. (Horning him or otherwise acting aggressively will make him and others he provokes drive more aggressively.) When I’m confronted with rudeness, I try to respond with respect, because I know that antagonizing that person is likely to mean that his or her children will be ignored or devalued or worse. I am far more empowered when I do so than when I react to a jerk like a jerk. 

Service volunteerism fell below 25 percent for the first time last year, despite an increase in employment. (The employed volunteer at higher rates than the unemployed.) Research clearly shows that some selfless behavior is necessary to well be. If you don’t have time to do formal volunteer work, do some small things for the benefit of others.

Stay in your "Adult brain." In general, people become more compassionate and moral with age. That’s partly because the development of the prefrontal cortex is not complete until the third decade of life, at which time we’re better able to see other people’s perspectives and to understand intuitively that we’re all more human than not. But under stress, people tend to retreat to emotion regulation habits forged in toddlerhood and use the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.

The "Toddler brain," mature at age 3, is self-obsessed, demanding, oversimplifying, intolerant, and easily overwhelmed. We think in terms of the toddler’s favorite two words, “Mine!” (My way!), or “No!” The Toddler brain doesn’t know how to improve anything; it can only sound alarms to get someone else to improve their emotional states. The easiest of many ways to switch into the Adult brain is to ask what you can do to make things a little better for yourself and those around you. In short, how can I be more humane?