Sunday, June 03, 2018

Compassion Failure


Real Compassion.

Is hard work.

We were on the plane ready to fly home. It was the first flight in the morning and we'd gotten up very early to ensure we got there with time enough for things to go wrong. That is our strategy, it works for us. But by the time we got boarded and the plane was ready to take off it was only 7:30 and we'd been up for hours. But we pulled away and we relaxed knowing that we'd be home soon.

The plane got in position for take off, which took some time because there was a line up of planes flying out, and we heard the captain come on the PA. Oh. No. We were told that there was a passenger having 'some medical issues' and we'd have to go back to the terminal. The whole plane, every single passenger, sighed. We were going to be leaving late, connections were going to be missed, the flight just got a little bit more unbearable.

We got to the gate and the passenger disembarked, there was some paperwork to be done, and then, we were ready to pull away from the gate. All of this added about 20 minutes to the flight. The line up and re-positioning for take off was another 15. Then we were in the air headed home. I was sitting there with a little bit of resentment, a little bit of annoyance, a little bit on anger rolling in a solid ball of selfishness in my stomach.

Not once during that time did I ask myself what it must have been like for the passenger to need to return to the gate, to seek immediate medical attention, and to miss the flight entirely. In fact I knew I wasn't asking myself that question because I didn't want to.

I didn't want to do the work of compassion.

I was tired.

On top of that, I kind of felt that my compassion, if I had engaged with it, would have been fruitless. What would the passenger know or care about how I felt about the whole ordeal, for them, for me? Why does it matter that I engage with empathy, that I put caring into operation? Why start up the machinery of compassion when there was no heavy lifting to be done?

It wasn't until I got home, after having told the story of the delayed flight and my annoyance about it to a couple of people, who all got why I was feeling what I was feeling, that I realized that my compassion did have work to do. Firstly, showing compassion in a situation where it isn't needed for another is worthy because it's needed for myself and for my own peace of mind. Secondly, I was modelling for others that the correct response to another's distress is annoyance. 

And it's not.


I got it wrong. I'm fully human and alive to the fact that I am more easily moved to judgement than generosity. Yes, I get it wrong. Yes, I got it wrong. Ultimately it does matter to the passenger who got off the plane in medical distress because we both live in the same world, and we all have the ability to directly or indirectly affect each other just by the attitudes we carry.

I hope the passenger who got off is well.

I hope their next flight went smoothly.

I hope they know that the delay they caused, ultimately, did no one any harm at all.


ABEhrhardt said...

Same here: there is often work to be done after the automatic responses jump in and stomp all over something.

At least I catch myself now.

Lucy said...

In general, I think it actually takes work for an averagely empathic human to _suppress_ empathy.

That's not trivial. It means that there's a strong-enough reason to do that work, and that reason is seldom likely to be a good one.

I have a notion that one potent reason to suppress compassion is that we have developed a societal myth that emotions are to be treated as Things, quasi-facts, determinants of what we do next. (I'm of the firm view that emotions are information, to be weighed against other information. Certainly, they're much less troublesome when treated that way.) Thing-ifying emotion has odd effects: if emotions were determinants, that ought, it seems, to make compassion all the more compelling, but it doesn't seem to be the result (except in a certain sentimentalising and not-entirely-real way).

Instead, we've come to harbour the really rather odd idea that compassion and annoyance are incompatible.† Choose one! So, in order to feel what we feel, we have to suppress what we also feel.

It would have been perfectly unremarkable for the collective sigh to be followed‡ by a collective "I really hope he's going to be o.k." (I hope it silently was). There's no especial reason why that shouldn't be followed by a mixture of empathy for the individual and annoyance at the universe's disdain for plans - which, if allowed *without* the extra effort of suppressing empathy, probably would have been shorter-lived, or at least less troubling. One's seldom so annoyed as when one suspects one isn't _quite_ in the right.


†In the case of someone's being taken suddenly ill, empathy and blame certainly are incompatible. Annoyance, however, isn't intrinsically blame: it's an information point. Blame is more of a decision.

‡ We're self-involved mammals, not Bodhisattvas.