Expanding the circle of compassion in the time of global crisis
Who do you care about the most? Who would you help in their time of need? For many of us, the answer to both questions would be the same. We tend to limit our circle of compassion to our loved ones because it requires energy, sacrifice and emotional labor to empathize and lend a helping hand to someone in need. However, in this time of widespread suffering, we have the opportunity and even the imperative to widen our circle and to extend our compassion to more people. It is not just a matter of being kind; it is a matter of moral urgency.
On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed, at least temporarily, how we meet with our friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. We are told to stay at home and to physically distance ourselves from other people. On a global scale, countries are closing their borders to outsiders and distancing themselves from other nations. Governments are focused on taking care of their own citizens and creating nationwide strategies to survive and fight this virus.
On the other hand, however, we have witnessed tremendous acts of kindness. People are coming together and making huge and generous efforts to take care of others by helping, comforting, protecting and sharing what they have with those who suffer. Some even risk their own safety and health to protect others from harm, often without expecting anything in return.
The motivating force behind such gestures is compassion. Compassion is the natural human response to another person’s suffering and pain, evident since the beginning of human history and noted by classical authors such as Aristotle and Rousseau. Indeed, compassion and empathy are the core emotions that connect us to each other. Without them, we lack the ability to respect others, protect them from harm and respond to their needs. But with compassion and empathy, we are able to notice the suffering of others, feel concern for them and take measures to alleviate their pain.
We have to be cautious, however, not to fall into the trap of feeling compassion for only certain people. It is easy to feel compassion for our nearest and dearest ones, but it can be much more difficult to empathize when differences like status, culture, religion, language, skin colour, gender or age separate us. We have a tendency, or even a bias, to act compassionately towards those who are the most important to our well-being because we are already emotionally invested in those relationships. In times of crisis, there is a real danger that compassion narrows to those closest to us and ends up dividing the world into an ‘us’ versus ‘them.’
Now, during a time of widespread crisis in our hyper-connected world, it is imperative that our compassion extends far beyond our own circles and national borders. Let us not confine compassion to those nearest to us and exclude those farther afield. Let us avoid the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Rather, let us harness compassion as a tool for social transformation, to change not only how we interact face-to-face with those around us, but also how we run our societies. We should use this situation as an opportunity to restructure social policies and procedures and put compassion and empathy at the center. Let us expand our circle of compassion to encompass all people, animals and even biodiversity, and in doing so, we will create a global culture of compassion.
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