The Modern Survival Guide #31
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I do think that it’s important that we don’t all go through life alone, and that’s why this article is about compassion.
Helping people is a good thing. It makes life more livable for you and everyone around you, makes the world a better place, and is generally good for society. Let’s start with that assumption, because most other arguments make you into a sociopath, put you in violation of your religion (assuming you have a religion), and violate most codes of ethical behavior. Cool?
So, with that in mind, it’s worth considering that your and my and everyone’s ethics of compassion come under strain in the modern world. In this article I’ll discuss why that’s the case, and what we can do about it to stay compassionate. There are three parts to this: maintaining a compassionate mindset, maintaining compassionate ethics, and understanding the realities of helping people.
Staying Compassionate in a Hard World
It’s very hard to be compassionate all the time with everyone who needs help. This is partly a function of the information age (we get bombarded with causes daily, and you can’t answer all the mail), but more so a result of simply becoming jaded. Consider an example: people from rural areas who visit cities are probably going to see their first homeless person pretty quickly. And, speaking from experience, they’re more likely to give money to panhandlers. City people will step over beggars to get on the bus, without a second glance, and rural people who become city people will eventually do the same. We stop caring.
Party this is the result of experience — familiarity breeds contempt, and if you see beggars every day it takes the sting out of it. Partly this is the result of education — a lot of city people subscribe to the (widely published) idea that giving money to panhandlers actually is more harmful than giving money to homeless shelters, for example. And partly it becomes a practical concern — if I give $5 to every beggar I meet on the street, pretty soon I’ll have handed out my entire paycheck.
The net effect is that I have personally stepped over a beggar to get where I was going. I think it was a bar, or possibly a concert. The irony didn’t occur to me until later.
This was just an example, but I think we all become jaded to the horrors of the world in just this fashion — seeing suffering, rationalizing why those who are suffering deserve it or why we can’t do anything about it, and then resolving to ignore it. I don’t think that city people who ignore beggars are bad people — but I do think that they have convinced themselves that the beggar issue is a problem outside their purview.
Similarly, I don’t think people who vote against welfare programs are necessarily bad people, and I don’t think people who decry foreign aid programs are necessarily evil. They are simply allowing rationalizations of one sort or another to convince them that others don’t need or deserve their help, or that providing help is perpetuating a problem, or that money and effort would be better spent elsewhere.
There’s an obvious trap to this kind of thinking, of course. If a problem is so big, or so pervasive, that you think you can’t do anything about it, then the rational thing is to do nothing. And if a problem seems like it lacks an obvious solution, or you think you’re being deceived into a poor solution, you are of course going to hold off on supporting a solution. And then of course the problem will remain, because people aren’t doing anything about it.
That’s a tough hit to most compassionate outlooks, but there’s also an empathy problem to overcome. Compassion is an offshoot of empathy, and empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another. Most of us can’t imagine ourselves in the most desperate circumstances, because we have never experienced them. This is actually a benefit of living in a stable post-industrial society, but it has consequences for our ability to be compassionate; it’s tough for an American to put themself in the place of a Rohingyan refugee, for example.
It’s also hard to engender empathy for the less fortunate due to pervasive narratives in US society which state that if people are poor, it’s because they deserve it. In my humble opinion, this is an outgrowth of our culture of individualism from #30: “If you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and couldn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” With that kind of idea circulating around, it can be hard to get people to pay attention to or empathize with the poor. It’s much easier to think, “I am not poor because I am superior,” rather than “I am not poor because my parents weren’t poor, I am healthy, I had money for college, I was able to find a good job, and I am lucky.”
Maintaining a compassionate ethos, to my way of thinking, therefore requires that we moderate our individualist mindsets and spend at least some time every day or two thinking about different paths our lives might have taken. Imagining oneself in the shoes of another can be a soul-defining experience. And once we maintain our empathy, it becomes important to act — to avoid sliding into the worldview that we can’t do anything, or that we shouldn’t do anything.
There’s an educational component to this as well — watching a documentary or reading a book every now and then about people in less fortunate circumstances, or even just looking at a picture, is good for the soul. It reminds us that the universe is vast, chaotic, and unpredictable, and that there are circumstances where we will be dependent on the good will of other human beings.
So this is the first hurdle to overcome — never accept, for even a moment, that any problem or event of human suffering is so great that you, personally, cannot affect it.¹ And similarly never accept, for even a moment, the argument that one group is more or less worthy of assistance then another. We are either all worthy of compassion, or none of us are.
The Ethics of Compassion
Compassion is an active discipline; it is revealed through good works, and there is no such thing as a compassionate individual who does not offer help. With that in mind, let’s formulate a general statement on the ethics of compassion:
A compassionate individual is one who provides assistance to their fellow men and women, as needed, within the bounds of their personal resources.
You’ll notice that this statement contains both a prescriptive action and a limitation. The action is to provide assistance. Help people. Give money. Give time. Give emotional support. Walk old ladies across the street. Whatever, just help people. You do that, and you become part of the support structure that keeps civil society running… and also it’s a major step on the path to being a good person.
Also note that this statement does not contain a promise of repayment — compassion acts are given as needed, not as purchased nor as bargained for. If someone is in need, then they are both worthy and deserving of compassion, and it’s that simple.
But there is a limitation. Going back to #16, there is a natural limit on your ability to help. Specifically, if you can’t take care of yourself or your family, you can’t provide help. It is not a good long-term proposition if you bankrupt yourself giving money to the needy, because you perpetuate the problem by becoming needy.
Now, you would be correct to think that this is a giant loophole. My definition of what I need to leave myself and my family for a comfortable and productive life is going to be different from yours, and that means it is an option for abuse. But how is that different from any other day? At a certain point any ethical discussion becomes a discussion about personal conscience. Your compassionate ethics are between you and whatever arbiter you believe judges this sort of thing.² I can encourage you to be compassionate, but the nature of compassionate action (as opposed to legally-mandated action, for example) is that it is voluntary.
Just remember that your capacity for compassion naturally increases with your personal wealth and power — but these things also increase your incentives to become cynical and selfish. If you find yourself walking down these paths, and want to change, my advice is to reconnect with the world. Volunteer instead of giving money. Talk to people instead of reading surveys. Visit places instead of looking at pictures. Remind yourself that the world is bigger, and meaner, and more beautiful, and more terrible than just your day-to-day life.
Realities of Helping People
With all that being said, there are two big warnings that I have found true in many compassionate actions, and they are:
- Never expect gratitude. Pride and resentment can make people stingy with thanks, and some of them will hate you for your kindness.
- Many people do not want to be helped — and sometimes the people who need the most help want it the least.
If you perform a compassionate action because you are anticipating heartfelt gratitude, sooner or later you will be severely disappointed.³ This therefore cannot be a correct motivation for being compassionate; you’ll burn out too fast if you’re only interested in being thanked.
Instead, the only sustainable motivation for helping people is to recognize the you should be compassionate regardless of personal recognition, for three big reasons:
- Helping people is the right thing to do because leaving people in suffering is evil (because religion, morals, personal philosophy, etc.).
- Helping people is the right thing to do because it strengthens social bonds, increasing the odds that someone will help you in return in the future.
- Helping people is the right thing to do because it prevents larger social problems in the long term — desperate people do desperate things.
Compassion is not a contract; those whom you help are under no obligation to you. Treat all acts of compassion as gifts. Expect nothing in return, or at least no immediate personal reward. Recognize that sometimes you will be hated by those you help. Realize that none of this devalues the act of compassion at all. These are the realities of compassionate action and compassionate ethics.
¹There is an old parable about a man walking by the ocean with a friend. Many thousands of starfish have washed ashore, and are drying out and dying in the sand. The man starts picking them up, one by one, and throwing them back in the ocean. His friend says, “What are you doing, you can’t save them all! Why bother?” The man says, “Saved that one… and that one… and that one…”
²God, Buddha, the gods, your conscience, your spouse, your friends, your personal philosophy — whatever or whoever it is that keeps you on the straight and narrow. Incidentally, this is why taxes are compulsory and not voluntary.
³Liberals, pay attention. You are not, ever, going to win praise for a welfare program. The people who are paying for it will hate it because they like their money better when it’s in their own pockets, and the people who receive it will hate it because it doesn’t do enough, or in some cases because they’ll think you’re being patronizing. The only time when people defend these programs is when they are threatened — and you still won’t get credit for them.