I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the way we relate to charitable acts and what compels us to act in compassionate ways. I asked a question on my Facebook page a few weeks ago and the response to that and to my previous article on comfort and convenience was quite interesting. Here is the question.
Is there a minimum effective level of compassion?
A lot of the Ideas presented in response to the question and to the article on comfort and its power over us confirmed a lot of the points made in a Vox interview with Paul Slovic that has been slowly digesting in my brain over the last few weeks.
Paul Slovic’s research has shown that we value human life most on a one to one, relational basis. The more diluted that ratio becomes the less value we place on each individual life in the group.
My recent conversations on Facebook carried a consistent theme, we all are eager and willing to help one person or one family. We are fulfilled by helping people in a personal, relatable way. We dislike pressure to be or feel compassionate outside of a relational context. It goes against the way we are wired. We all want to help others, to be compassionate, but we want to do it in a genuine, relational way that feels authentic.
So let’s get back to the question I asked at at the beginning of this article. Is there a minimum effective level of compassion?
I strongly believe that there is not a minimum effective level of compassion. I believe that even the smallest level of compassion in our hearts is a gift from God and that exercising that gift will give us the ability to be more compassionate in the future.
The problem with compassion is not how much is needed to be effective, it is whether we can see that our compassion is reaching someone in a personal way. Our capacity for compassion is increased not only by the act of giving but by witnessing the effects of our compassion on the recipient.
Our society has never had as many tools to connect with others as we do today. Charities and nonprofits have a wide array of tools to connect with us and tap into our reserves of compassion. Some succeed but a large number fail to make that connection.
I would like to suggest that they fail to make that connection because they fail to establish a personal connection between the us and the people they are serving. We are compassionate and willing to give when we feel a connection to the recipient of that compassion and are able to see the results of our gift. If we cannot see tangible results, our interest evaporates and we move on with our lives.
We as humans are not near as interested in programs and problems as we are in people. We are drawn to human stories and human connections, we are wired to crave the connections that come as a result of compassion. We long to see the joy, the smile, the hope on someone’s face in reaction to kindness.
When we decide to be compassionate and do not get that relational feedback that we are seeking, we lose a little bit of our enthusiasm for the cause. Over time and through repeats of this process we can develop a condition know as compassion fatigue. We give and give and give but fail to see results and and receive the relational feedback that competes the cycle. The organizations we give money to keep asking us to give and continually tell us about the problem but often fail to provide the personal, relational closure that completes the giving cycle and recharges our capacity for compassion.
The longer this cycle continues the more disillusioned we become and the less we respond to the needs presented to us.
To be clear, I am not saying that we are not compassionate because we do not give. What I am saying is that our capacity as humans for compassion is being short circuited by nonprofit marketing that fails to provide the feedback and the personal, relational connection we need to complete the compassion cycle.
To go back to the question I posed at the beginning of this article, I don’t believe there is a minimum effective level of compassion. I believe that we begin to feel our compassion is ineffective or unappreciated because when we donate to larger causes the marketing continually tells us that more is needed and we need to do more without offering tangible, relational feedback that completes the compassion cycle.
We look for places to give and be compassionate where we can be sure the cycle will be completed. The more this cycle is broken the smaller our circle of compassion becomes.