Impulses to Act
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2014 (edited 2018)
Our subjective judgments may misrepresent our ill-intended motivations, sweetening the sour, and ignoring the bitter. We can do better. We can be compassionate because we care.
Compassion and meanness appear to the casual observer as opposites. We believe identifying one from the other is simple—obvious without taking time to discern the difference. Compassion is good and meanness 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 we lose objectivity when observing behaviors in ourselves, judging personal characteristics is never simple. Compassion is more than blatant kindness, the complexity can be murky, confused by biased assessments.
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We judge our compassion from select behavioral expressions, we conveniently filter for neatness, while ignoring the dark motivations bubbling underneath. Behaviors may appear compassionate but the action, perhaps, was motivated by hope for personal gain. Or conversely, a behavior may appear spiteful but compassionately motivated.
Compassionate people are sensitive to suffering—all suffering. Benevolent internal stirrings encourage action to assuage the observed pain; a motivating affect starts the movement towards kindness.
Giving a grown child money may not be an act of compassion if the gift is knowingly contributing to a nasty drug habit. We may be giving money to avoid another conflict. The discomfort motivating action isn't sensitivity to suffering but fear of another dramatic encounter with a disrespectful adult child. Relieving guilt or protective maneuvers isn’t compassion. The money is given for self-benefiting reasons--not necessarily wrong, just not an act of compassion.
The complexity of hidden motivations, pushing actions, allows us manipulate the reason behind our action. Just as kindness may be selfishly motivated, appearances of meanness may actually be acts of compassion. Grabbing the arm of the toddler about to jet across the busy street may upset the youngster, his plans were foiled. But the act may have saved his life, whether he understands the purpose of the intervention or not.
"The complexity of hidden motivations, pushing actions, allows us manipulate the reason behind our action."
Lengthy and adept justifications can manipulate both good and bad actions, treating the mind to the enjoyable meaning it seeks. Mean people don’t see themselves as such. Mean people shiftily explain evil with a positive twist. “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.
There is no gauge available to measure compassion; no ruler, no scale. We must rely on the imperfect subjective reasoning of our minds, doing our best to look a little deeper, considering common tendencies to justify with a rosy picture. Kindness that we give or receive when carefully examined may reveal unseen factors—social acceptance, insecurity, financial benefits, votes, or self-promotion.
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 no reward is given. When the motivating purpose is to alleviate someone's pain, the act is its own reward.
Any kindness, no matter the motivations, isn’t necessarily wrong; it just isn’t compassion and we would do well to acknowledge it as such.
When insecurities are strong—as it is for many–we seek acceptance, often with acts of kindness. Such acts reward with superficial acceptance. But the actions, foolishly motivated for personal gain are often remembered, like bills for services rendered. When left unpaid, the kindness is withdrawn, self-righteousness glorified, and the receiver vilified. "I was kind and you never gave anything in return!" Gifts, under these rules, are given but not freely, later presented as evidence against the receiver. Kindness with strings attached are not gifts, but 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 must be diluted with recognition of the value of others. When acts are inspired with compassion, the kindness connects us to the whole. For the compassionate joys are less palatable when only obtained by stealing joy from another. Some enjoy winning, while other prefer beating others. With compassion, we are willing to suffer if it brings relief to the whole. We must skeptically examine actions for hidden evil 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 we connect with the pain of another. Our success our tempered by the costs to the whole. Compassion stimulates sorrow for suffering and feel motivated to help relieve. With compassion, exposures to crime and poverty, even by people in a foreign lands, chills our soul and we feel sad.
Our well-being requires processing these uncomfortable feelings without ignoring the suffering by dismissing their pain with blame and division. Often, we prefer to escape the discomforts by proclaiming, "they bring it on themselves." But pain is real and hurts regardless of the cause.
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