Motivations The underlying mechanisms for good and bad BY: Troy Murphy | January 2014
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Compassion and meanness appear on opposite realms of behavior. We believe identifying one from the other is a simple task—obvious to any casual observer. Compassion is good and mean is bad, right? A popular bumper sticker sums it up well, “Mean People Suck.” Compassion is essential for flourishing. Simple enough—we should be compassionate. But objectivity is lost when we glance at ourselves, judging personal characteristics is never simple. Compassion is complex enough to be lost in the biased views of self. We judge compassion from select behavioral expressions, filtered for neatness; but ignore the dark motivations bubbling underneath. Behaviors may appear compassionate but the act, perhaps, was selfishly motivated for personal gain. Or conversely, a behavior may appear spiteful but compassionately motivated. Compassionate expressions are complex—not always received as kindness.
Compassionate people are sensitive to suffering—all suffering. Benevolent stirrings encourage action to assuage the pain; a motivating emotion starts the movement towards kindness. During the 2016 GOP debates, issues regarding terrorists permeated many of the discussions. Some candidates responded with power, promising complete destruction, fire and fury. This raises a question; can we destroy and be compassionate? Ben Carson, one of the candidates, compared the ugliness of war to removing a tumor from a child. The overt behavior of cutting into the child’s skull was compassionate because of the life preserving goal. The point is compassion needs the surrounding context to be appropriately evaluated for motivation. But by blurring the lines, ugliness can easily be falsely interpreted as goodness; meanness for kindness; hurt for healing.
Giving a grown child money may not be compassionate if the gift is knowingly contributing to a nasty drug habit. We may be giving money to avoid another painful conflict. Relieving our guilt isn’t a compassionate action. The money is a selfish gift for self-benefiting reasons. But the complexity of motivations, hidden behind kind explanations, allows for manipulation of meaning. Just as kindness may be selfishly motivated, appearances of meanness may be compassionately motivated. We can be mean and justify it. Mean people don’t see themselves as such. Mean people shiftily explain evil with a positive explanation. “I am a straight shooter; I say things as they are,” or “Karma, they just got what they deserved.” Our explanations may be accurate or justifying—depending on the context. Our straight shooting may be hurtful, not spoken with concern, but with venom.
No accurate gauge for measuring compassion is available. Compassion can’t be weighed with a scale. We must imperfectly strive to evaluate our actions the best we can, keeping in mind the common downfalls and tendencies for justification. Acts of kindness that we give and receive when carefully examined may reveal unseen factors pushing behind the curtain—social acceptance, insecurity, financial benefits, votes, or self-promotion.
"No accurate gauge for measuring compassion is available. Compassion can’t be weighed with a scale. We must imperfectly strive to evaluate our actions the best we can, keeping in mind the common downfalls and tendencies for justification."
Kindness motivated by outside forces, with expectant strings attached, may quietly (or overtly) demand payback. No compassion is found here. When we express kindness because we feel obligated or with hopes of reward, we feel slighted when nothing is received in return. When the motivating purpose is to alleviate pain, the act is its own reward. Kindness with alternative motivations isn’t necessarily wrong; it just isn’t compassion.
When we the insecurities are strong—as it is for many of us –we commonly seek acceptance through pretend kindness. Such acts may gain superficial acceptance, but also play into later claims of self-righteousness when desired acceptance is withdrawn: "I was kind and you gave me nothing in return!" Gifts, under these rules, are given but not freely, later presented as evidence against the receiver. When we give kindness with strings attached, we are not given gifts, but creating bartering tools for personal gains.
Cooperation is essential for intimacy, diplomacy and survival. Kindness may always contain a measure of selfishness. Self-interest is part of survival. But selfishness can be diluted. When acts are inspired with compassion, the kindness connects us to the whole. The joys of the compassionate are less palatable when obtained by increasing the suffering of others. With compassion, we are willing to suffer if it brings relief to the whole. We must skeptically examine our actions for hidden motives. We can be more objective, a little more compassionate, eliminating suffering and promoting greater kindness.
Compassion is not always joyful. Compassion may cause sorrow when a feeling connection is established with someone in pain. The connection stimulates sorrow for their suffering and motivation to relieve. With compassion, our exposure to crime and poverty, even when experienced by people in a foreign land, blows a cold wind through our soul. Compassion requires processing these uncomfortable feelings, not dismissing their pain through justifying disconnection. Often, we seek escape from the barbs of compassion by proclaiming, "They bring it on themselves." But the pain of others is real regardless of the cause. A compassionate person understands this and seeks to relieve when at all possible.