Monday, 7 April 2008

'Compassionate' is the new 'Cool' - is it only a dream?

Warning: long, rambling and somewhat atypical post ahead.....

Lately I've been doing more and more thinking about why it has become 'cool' to be angry, greedy and mean.

Cars and trucks are bigger and meaner-looking with their big grills and downward slanting headlights. Motorcycle manufacturers make their products look angry on purpose, so other drivers will pay attention to them. Vehicle headlights are aggressively bright and who needs a muffler anyway? Something that makes an ordinary diesel truck sound like an '18 wheeler' is way more cool. Especially when you throw your cigarrette butt or McWhatever garbage out the window - garbage cans are for wimps, after all.

Pictures of celebrities seem more likely to show them frowning and with 'attitude' than smiling openly. Even the phrase, "with attitude" implies that the attitude itself is a negative one. You never hear anyone refer to someone with a friendly disposition as having 'attitude.' Swearing and crude language are more and more commonplace everywhere you go (and I work in a jail so I have a fairly high tolerance for these things). Letting someone else into traffic or into a parking spot is seen as wimpy and weak. Cell phones are depicted in TV commercials as being more 'cool' if they are so razer sharp, they can be used as a weapon and cut someone's clothes. Sports commentators and business writers speak of 'dominating' the other team, and 'aggressive positioning' in the investment market.

I don't think I'm imagining all of this, am I? How did we get to this point?

I think it may have something to do with society's glorification of psychopathic tendencies*. Think about who is seen as valuable and important in today's mainstream western society: it is the detached, strongly independent person who can separate emotions from the task at hand and get things done. Someone who isn't afraid to win at all costs. The 'thick-skinned' person who can exert power and control over others without worrying about how it affects anything but the financial bottom line. It is the charming, charismatic person who can make everything seem alright and who can sweep others up with their visionary goals and ideas. The person who can make the complicated things seem black-and-white again and who is quick to make decisions and act on them. The person who can carry on, or even thrive, in the face of adversity. Those who can turn any situation to their advantage. (Think about some bosses, politicians, or media moguls whom you may know.)

The problem with this is that people with these qualities usually have a few others to go along with them, and these are quite a bit less positive. For example: being self-centered and shallow, being able to lie well and often, lacking the capacity for empathy, being impulsive and impractical, and seeing themselves as above the law, or as a law unto themselves. In short, such people often have no appreciation or understanding of the reciprocal connection between themselves and the rest of the world. They see other people and things merely as means to their ends. Fortunately, there are not that many true psychopaths around, but there sure are a lot of unintentional wanna-bees, it seems.

When will it stop being cool to be mean, to each other and to the planet? When will the word 'power' come to be associated with consideration, discretion, moderation and wisdom instead of with domination, exploitation and control? When, and how, will compassion and kindness be the new cool?

With psychopathy, the essential problem as I see it is disconnection on all sorts of levels. A psychopath doesn't care if what he or she does affects anyone else, positively or negatively. It just doesn't matter one way or the other to them. In contrast, the compassionate person can see connections between everything and everyone all over the place.

So if disconnection is part of the problem, then connection is at least part of a solution. After that it comes down to how to foster such connectivity in a world where the media, corporations and government want us all to remain disconnected, and therefore afraid of, each other, the world and ourselves. Divide and conquer, don't ya know.

Ok, so maybe I'm getting a little paranoid there. Or maybe not.

I know that for myself it was that "eureka" moment where I felt a direct connection between myself and the natural world that my entire world view and priorities changed. I wasn't especially psychopathic before then, I don't think, but I was certainly unaware of a lot of things and disconnected from the very breath that keeps me alive from moment to moment. (And I had my episodes of being mean and uncaring too. Still do. I'm working on it, but I still do.) But this "eureka" moment I had was completely unexpected, and I'm not sure the planet has time to wait for everyone to have one of these experiences.

I still have so many questions: Is a feeling of inter-connection really essential to compassionate action? If so, how could these connective experiences be fostered? If they can be fostered, can large-scale changes in society's values and actions be made in a relatively short period of time, so that we don't kill ourselves off and ruin the only planet we have?

I'll end by saying that this is one of my most-pondered things, and my ponderings remain a work-in-perpetual-progress. I welcome all thoughts and ideas on this topic!

*For those of you who don't know, I'm a forensic psychologist and so I have occasion to work with psychopaths on a fairly regular basis. It was a colleague who works in the same field who pointed this out to me some years ago, and it has really stuck with me.


Hazel Nut said...

It's true, sad to say. I drive a small car and feel somewhat intimidated when a large SUV grill appears in my rear view mirror about 3 inches behind my car, it seems. There is some truth to the saying "nice guys finish last" - in this day and age you have to be cutthroat to "get ahead" if that's the lifestyle you're after.
Personally I don't have that kind of ambition, I'm happy living small in my little part of the world. Remember - the meek shall inherit the earth. Hopefully.

DC said...

Well, from my perspective, the reason that most people on this planet act like third graders is that this is a third grade planet. There are people who come here -- like the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer -- who are much more spiritually evolved than the masses. There are others -- like Hitler and Stalin -- who are much less so. The collective consciousness of the planet is somewhere in the middle, and it sets the cultural mores. The reason society generally values decisiveness and power more than sensitivity and compassion is that the majority of people here do not feel a strong connection with others and the world around them. They ask, "What's in it for me?" because "me" is the only person they identify with.

I think it's good to model compassionate behavior and to encourage people to respect life and nature, but there are many people who are not ready to change, and they won't until it's time for them to. Eventually, something of our true nature will awaken within each of us and broaden our perspective of our place in the universe. This can be fostered but not forced. People need to discover the truth within themselves in their own way, in their own time -- no one responds well to coercion. I believe that more people are waking up and that enough people will before it's too late.

Malva said...

Very interesting.
Not directly related but it reminded me of this Tapestry (the CBC Radio1 show) episode that talked about compassion. Mary Hynes was interviewing Marc Barasch.

I got the book from the library after hearing about it on that show and it talked about how maybe it should be "survival of the kindest". I remember really enjoying the book.

kale for sale said...

What I haven't been able to get out my mind is something I heard Eric Schlosser, The Fast Food Nation guy, say at the beginning of a talk - We've become a nation of consumers and in the process have lost our compassion. I've been thinking about that for months now and it seems so true. Of course not always true but damn near.

It also seems that in terms of consumerism the compassion or care only goes so far, to the person in front of us, chatting with the checker, tipping the waitress, but there's often a disregard for the worker in the field or the people in the factories or the countries with diminishing resources. I'm certainly guilty.

Thanks for letting me ponder a bit too.

Theresa said...

Hazel nut - I can feel intimidated by those huge vehicles as well, and here in Alberta they're everywhere. It seems like hardly anyone has just a normal truck anymore, they're mostly all behemoths that do drive 3 inches off your bumper until there's an opportunity to pass you and then cut back in again, spraying gravel all over you. Commuting is lots of fun.

dc - how do you mean, third grade planet? I think I'm missing something there? I think people are waking up too, I just worry that the awakening won't be heard or felt much when the predominant culture is one of domination. This is an age-old worry I guess. I should just pick an iceberg and start pushing, as Greenpa would say. I wish I knew which one to pick.

Malva - what a neat coincidence! I had read an excerpt from Marc Barash's book in a book I recently picked up at the used bookstore: Best Buddhist Writing 2006. When I went to the website, I recognized it right away.

Kale - ya, consumerism sure seems to come at a high cost alright. Consuming can be such a self-involved thing, that leaves little room for outward-directed attention. Like dc says, the only concern is 'what's in it for me?"

Anonymous said...

Very thought-provoking. When I read through the first part I was thinking you are describing "redneck" culture (for lack of a better term). Here in the city such things are not considered cool (the big trucks, etc).

But you are right that our society glorifies violence and the tough guy ethic (whether a biker or a Wall Street Exec). I have my own personal theory about this:

I think the reason you see such violence in our movies, TV and a glorification of gore is because North Americans have not witnessed a war in their front yard since the American Revolution.

Anybody I know who comes from a country where invading soldiers have wreaked violence on people in recent history (Japan-occupied Hong Kong, Israel, Poland) get no thrill from watching it in a movie. They've seen it and lived it and it is NOT considered a form of entertainment.

But we here in Canada and the US are so removed from the atrocities of war that we gawk at violent movies, news coverage showing blown up bodies, and we glorify the idea of violence and being "defenders of justice". We are voyeurs because it lies so far outside our real world experience.


CindyW said...

Thanks for your rambling. I have the same thoughts too and honestly I get discouraged when I dwell too much on them.

It seems to me that humans have a genetic tendency of insecurity, which leaves us very vulnerable to things that appeal to our fears. Our cars get bigger so no one can crush us. Our houses get bigger so no one will think we are not successful in life.

We are constantly afraid of the empty half of the glass. That laser focus doesn't necessarily make us happy. It just makes us not look within ourselves and not look beyond ourselves.

We fear that this is a dog-eating-dog world (sorry dogs), so we behave as such.

I don't know how we can break this fear. Something to chew on for a while. Again thanks for bringing up the thoughts.

DC said...

What I meant, Theresa, is that the way people conceive of themselves and others evolves over time, and that the majority of people on this planet haven't yet reached the point where they have begun to see a greater connection between themselves and the rest of the universe. My analogy was one of school. Great saints who have fully realized their fundamental unity with all the cosmos have graduated from school. Great villains who haven't even learned the value of not killing other people for fun are still in kindergarten. A good number of people on this planet are somewhere in-between. They realize they have some minimal connection with others and that it is somewhat important to not go around recklessly destroying life, but they are not willing to make sacrifices for the greater good because they don't really feel part of anything greater. So in my analogy, they are maybe in third grade.

This isn't to judge or to put myself above others. I have many faults, which I freely admit to. The analogy is just a convenient, probably overly simplistic, way of characterizing the progress this planet has made as a whole. We're not starting from the bottom, but we're pretty far, as a group, from reaching our potential.

This fact notwithstanding, I believe that an internal change gradually takes place in all people over time, strengthening the connection they feel with everyone and everything else. At some point, those who were previously unable to empathize with others and recognize the value of compassion become able to do so. This is happening now. Despite all of the inhumanity you see in the world today, there is evidence that people are evolving and starting to abandon old, destructive paradigms. There are simplicity movements; there is a great demand for organic food; there are protests against coal plants, nuclear power and the WTO. There are many positive things happening that don't get much media coverage.

It's true that the movement toward sustainability hasn't gotten anywhere close to the masses yet -- and it may never become entirely mainstream. But that's okay. It will get large enough, and there will be a critical mass of people who are ready to do what it takes to move forward. Others will follow, if for no other reason, than because it will eventually dawn on them that it's in their own self interest to preserve the planet's ecosystems and natural resources.

So, my point was that though we haven't come very far, I believe that there is something more powerful than the consciousness of greed that is slowly awakening within people and moving us in the right direction. Call it what you will -- divine grace, good karma, innate human goodness -- there is some force stirring within people that is stronger that their lower nature and that will ultimately emerge in spite of the prevailing "me first" culture. It's going to be a rough ride over the coming decades, but I think we will make it. Just my 2 cents. I know a lot of people won't agree with me about any of this, and that's fine.

Theresa said...

rural aspirations - we have the big trucks everywhere, even in the big cities. Then the trucks are just fancier, with more chrome and accessories. And even the cars and motorbikes come with the mean headlights and the overly bright lights. I agree with your point about north americans glorifying violence because they are far removed from it -- it's that disconnection factor again.

dc - thanks for the expanded information - I think I was getting focused on the "third grade planet" part - I was thinking, "but hey, our planet is top grade!" That's not what you meant though. I do see these positive signs of a change coming too, and I surely do hope it is in time. More and more people are finding their voice and using it, which is certainly encouraging.

CindyW - I get discouraged as well, but I usually do get encouraged again! I think we would all be less afraid if we were more connected to each other and to the earth, and knew we always had a community to rely on, if/when things got tough. This is something I am working on, because I am kind of bad for wanting to just be a hermit when I get home from work. But I have started to get to know my neighbors, and the folks at the CSA farm, and the tai chi people are a fantastic and supportive community. So that's a start in my backyard, anyway.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful and insightful comments!

Simply Authentic said...

wow! incredible stuff here. i think that yes, compassion is fostered by a sense of interconnectedness but i don't know how to increase that sensation among individuals. when "rugged individualism" is seen as the key to's hard to get other people to recognize their bonds to humanity. however i do feel that at times this is changing. maybe one way to do so is through the school system and some of the techniques that teachers can utilize but then......teachers also hate having to add more to their plates and not everyone agrees that the public education system is supposed to be about morality either.

so here's a question...what do you think about the increase we're seeing in mental health issues, learning disabilities, and developmental disabilities? how much harder will it be to instill these principles if more of the population in fact really does have psychopathic tendencies?

what an incredibly interesting job you must have!

Theresa said...

Simply Authentic - did there used to be such thing as Civics classes in schools? I remember hearing about this but we didn't have such a thing in my school, even way back in the '70s and '80s :) I have this impression that those were the kinds of classes where you learned how to be a responsible citizen and how society worked to protect the rights and transmit the responsibilities of citizenship. But I don't have any factual information on that.

I wonder if such a class would be considered to value-laden for the school system or not? I would think that the "method of transmission" of the values of kindness and compassion would have to be coming from all sorts of places in order to be really effective. By that I mean that it would be helpful if such things were modeled and taught at home, at school, at church, at other faith-based groups, at social clubs, in our justice system, etc., etc. I guess we just need a complete revamping of society, that's all!

I do get the sense that such a sea-change is coming though, and I hope it's not just a false impression that I get because I'm making more of an effort to connect myself with like-minded people.

I do have a really interesting job, that's for sure. Jails are actually quite inspiring places at times - lots of underdogs doing the best they can with what they've got, with the odds stacked against them almost all of the time. It certainly makes me appreciate my relatively luxurious life circumstances.

green with a gun said...

"The person who can carry on, or even thrive, in the face of adversity. Those who can turn any situation to their advantage."

Is this really a sign of psychopathy? The manipulation, aggression and callousness, fair enough - but courage and creativity? Was Shackleton a psychopath? Surely not.

My understanding of mental illness is simply this: the ill person has a trait which any normal person will have from time to time, but that trait dominates their personality. Anyone is occasionally listless; but a depressed person is always so. Anyone is prone to flights of imagination; but a schizophrenic of a certain type cannot tell reality from hallucination. And so on.

If the mentally ill, including psychopaths, are simply people with normal human traits dominating them, then our "glorification of psychopathic tendencies" can be viewed in a new light, where it doesn't look so bad.

Being able to persuade people can be good; manipulating them is bad. Being able to press on through individual suffering for the good of the community can be good; callous indifference to others' suffering is bad. And so on.

So with that in mind, our "glorifying psychopathic tendencies" looks more like, "praising things which are qualities, but forgetting they have drawbacks."

Nonetheless, I do agree there's an angry and mean undercurrent to a lot of our culture. However, there are other explanations for the big cars pushing into parking spaces you describe.

In evolution, sometimes creatures will evolve physical traits and behaviours that actually make them less physically fit to survive, but which at the same time manage to get them mates.

The peacock's a classic example; the splendind plume prevents much flight. But it's a signal: "I am so fit that I can afford to have this big plume, and yet still survive." The male bower-bird, by contrast, builds a large elaborate nest with shiny things in it. "I am so good at gathering stuff that I can gather useless crap, even - just imagine how much useful stuff I can get!"

Some antelope in Africa practice "stotting", they jump in place when cheetahs and lions are near. "Look how high I can jump, that shows I can run fast, and yet I'm not running from you - that's because I can jump and run so well I don't have to start yet, you shouldn't even bother."

Coming to humans, much of our behaviour is about conspicuous waste and conspicuous giving, as I write about here. Both are taken as signs of wealth, "I have so much I can give/throw it away." The difference is that conspicuous giving binds a society or community together, conspicuous waste divides them. So to show our wealth we have an excessively-large car or house; this divides us from one another.

But some division is inevitable. As I wrote here, there's some evidence that humans just can't imagine every other human as human, only at most around 150 of them. It's just beyond our mental capacity, there's a physical limit in our brains. So in some respects, beyond the people we know and encounter in person, the rest of the world we don't really know or care about. A man falls in the street and I help him; 30,000 people die in an earthquake in Iran and I turn the newspaper page to read about Paris Hilton. So far as most of the world is concerned, every one of us is a psychopath.

Now, to overcome this limit we have civilisation: laws, institutions, and so on. Civilisation is a system where we can treat everyone as a family member even when we don't know or care about them. But that's for the general and somewhat abstract level; when it comes to day-to-day life, we still often feel separate.

Many people have written about cars and how they separate us from one another. We treat them as a private room - that's why you see people picking their noses in traffic, but not on a train. David Wong pointed out that while we may yell abuse at other drivers, we wouldn't yell at someone in an elevator. The glass and steel of our cars helps keep the other people outside our monkeysphere; but we have no such barrier in an elevator, and find it harder to forget the other people's humanity.

So perhaps it is not that our society is angry and mean, so we make angry and mean-looking cars, but more that by being in cars we find it easier to be angry and mean. By conspicuous waste, we divide our communities. And we thus fail to build our civilisation, which is the only thing we have to overcome the monkeysphere.

Theresa said...

Thanks for this, gwag. You always challenge me to think and re-think things.

One aside I want to make in reply is that psychopathy is categorized as personality disorder, not a mental illness. This is an important distinction in arguments relating to legal insanity and criminal responsibility. Psychopaths know whether what they are doing is right or wrong, they just don't care about the effects of their behavior on anyone other than themselves. On the other hand, acutely mentally ill people, like schizophrenics having a psychotic episode, don't necessarily know whether what they are doing is right or wrong.

My general point is that society has somehow come to not only tolerate a nearly-psychopathic degree of non-caring, but to actually see it as a desirable way to be. Undoubtedly, our big angry vehicles sure do make it easier to be that way.

DC said...

I looked up the definition of compassion. It is defined as "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." Since the definition used the word "consciousness," I looked it up as well. Consciousness is defined as "the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself." So, in the definition of compassion, there is the element of self-awareness.

So, we can say that in order for compassion to unfold within an individual, self-awareness must also develop. But just what exactly is one's "self" anyway? What is the enduring quality of existence that constitutes "you"? From the point of conception, the body is in a constant state of flux. Within each seven year period of our lives, most of the cells in the body die and are replaced. Even brain and other nervous system cells regenerate, though at a slower rate. Thus, we cannot say that we are the body, in the deepest sense. All the changes our bodies undergo do not alter our fundamental nature.

The mind, too, is constantly in motion. A relentless stream of thoughts comes and goes during both wakefulness and dreaming sleep. Only during periods of meditation or deep, dreamless sleep do the thoughts temporarily cease. Yet, during these breaks in thought, when the mind completely stops functioning, we still exist. Thus, we can't say that the essence of who we are is the mind either. Even when the mind is active, can we fully claim ownership of our thoughts? Does anyone choose to be depressed or anxious or to have any thoughts that make them unhappy? Of course not. The fact that there is an observer of such thoughts who wishes them to go away but cannot automatically cause them to do so demonstrates that we are not our thoughts. They are merely visitors, sometimes welcome, sometimes unwelcome.

So, who are we then, if we aren't our bodies or our minds? There can be no answer to this question that the mind will accept. The finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite mystery of who and what we really are. But by clinging to this mystery without trying to understand or define it in any way, the answer eventually comes, though not in words or even concepts.

When this awareness dawns, the flimsy veil separating one's self from the rest of the universe falls away, and compassion becomes natural because there is the realization that, in the deepest sense, there are no others -- there is only one integrated whole. What we do to and for others, we do to and for ourselves.

Think of creation as a stone. If you looked at it under an electron microscope, you would see hundreds of millions of atomic particles swirling around. Behind them would would be billions more subatomic particles. All would seem to be unconnected, moving at different rates, at different trajectories. But then, when you turned the microscope off and held the stone in your hand, what would you see? There would just be one object. Compassion unfolds like this. It grows as we begin to appreciate our own nature and our interconnection with all life. This doesn't happen in the mind -- it takes place at a much deeper level.

So, self-awareness and compassion are really one and the same. As the first arises, the second follows.

Theresa said...

When this awareness dawns, the flimsy veil separating one's self from the rest of the universe falls away, and compassion becomes natural because there is the realization that, in the deepest sense, there are no others -- there is only one integrated whole. What we do to and for others, we do to and for ourselves.

Thank you dc! This is the concept and the process I am trying to point to, when I talk about connection and interconnection - interbeing, even. When that veil is removed, everything changes and you don't want to hurt anyone or anything because you would be hurting yourself, because everything is part of everything else. It's incomprehensible, yet so real.

And so now I can stop worrying about which of Greenpa's 'iceburgs' to push, because pushing on any of them affects all of them. It means that each act of kindness and compassion I commit, helps me and everything and everyone! Ah, see, now this gives me more than just hope that things can change for the better, but confidence that they will, because, mean headlights or not, there are still way more people acting compassionately than there are people acting like psychopaths.

What a relief it is to know that, deeply.

SoapBoxTech said...

Whoo, you`ve been wise a long time I see!

Once again, I agree completely. A little less than a year later (tho it doesn`t matter so much as I think this has been going on a long time) I see two different trends in our western society; a small, but increasing, group of folks who are awake/aware and who have or are developing those positive traits like compassion and such...and then a significantly larger (and also growing) number of the detached, self-involved, etc etc.

From this perspective, as I keep saying, I can understand the reasoning of that group which seems intent on significantly reducing the population, and controlling the rest...yet I do not think I will ever agree with it.

I see I need to read a lot more of your backposts too!