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A world in need of a little more compassion

THE past few weeks, we have seen a number of pronouncements from government officials seemingly lacking in thought or regard for the public they serve.

From the indiscriminate opening and taxing of balikbayan boxes (an OFW’s way of saying “I love you and miss you” to his family back home), to plainly attributing the daily traffic jams in Metro Manila to economic progress—these are just indications of how some government officials lack any compassion for the feelings and situations of the citizenry.

Some left-leaning commentators cry cacique! or blame the government officials’ upbringing (e.g. haciendero background), as among the reasons for these bureaucrats’ seeming inability to identify with the suffering of the majority and do anything to alleviate it. I tend to dismiss these rantings as just another ploy to foment class warfare, which went out of style with communism.

Being rich and privileged has nothing to do with someone’s inability to empathize and help out those who suffer. In the first place, suffering doesn’t discriminate. You can be wealthy and still be in a miserable position. Besides, I have known quite a few financially blessed people who constantly work for the poor and underprivileged and have been helping the latter improve their lives.

True, not having undergone similar sacrifices like lining up for two to three hours just to ride a rickety MRT to get to one’s place of work on the other side of town may make this—and similar challenges—seem alien to those who have people driving them to work every day in airconditioned cars. But compassion is not the exclusive domain of the needy, or those who were poor but later succeeded in life.

What exactly is compassion?

Compassion is feeling sincerely concerned for the welfare of other people, with a great desire to improve their welfare or well-being. It is often confused with empathy, which psychologists define as being able to identify with the emotional state or circumstances of another person.

In other words, compassion takes empathy a step further. To illustrate, we may empathize with people who have lost their homes and families from a severe typhoon. Compassion, however, pushes us to help those typhoon survivors by donating food, clothes and medicine, or assisting them in finding jobs, and essentially supporting them in rebuilding their lives. Compassion encourages us to be altruistic; becoming selfless in our desire to give the survivors a boost, so they can regain their dignity and place in the world again. And, apparently, studies by psychologists indicate that people can be trained to be compassionate.  These same studies also show how the brain changes when a subject has undergone compassion training.

In 2013 the Association of Psychological Science (APS) cited one such study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which helped people become more compassionate through meditation, guided instructions, practice and playing a game where they used their “funds” to help complete strangers to improve their financial situation. (Read about the techniques used to train participants to be more compassionate at bit.ly/1hGsM68.)

“Our fundamental question was: ‘Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?’” said Helen Weng, lead author of the study and then a graduate student in clinical psychology, in a news release published on the APS site. “Our evidence points to yes.”

Using MRI scans, the researchers found that the people who received compassion training showed more altruism, showing brain changes when shown photos of human suffering. More brain activity was detected in the brain region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the brain regions which regulate emotions and where positive emotions are located.

“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away,” Weng explained.

So there’s no excuse for government officials, or politicians for that matter, to not understand how the “other half” of the population lives. They are quite lucky to be in their privileged positions, living far better lives and being free of the daily hassles of trying to put food on the table, paying for rent or the tuition of their kids.

But to be more effective and credible as caring human beings, it takes initiative and practice. Not just when the election season comes around. Not just when the TV cameras are whizzing, and the photographers’ flashbulbs are going off.

The rest of us can do a bit of practice as well. It’s quite easy to sit in front of our computers to rant and rail against the inanities of the work produced by our government officials. Perhaps, we also need to be compassionate and understand many of the bureaucratic difficulties and personal challenges these officials have to face.

No one gets a free pass. The world can become better—when we begin to care more about others.

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