by John D. Clague, Christian Science Committee on Publication for Oregon
I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people on street corners asking for money the last several years. I have to admit that sometimes cynicism nags at me in response to the plea scribbled on a piece of cardboard in their hand.
“Anything will help. God bless”
Other times I just feel bad for the person holding the sign. On rare occasions I actually give them some money. I can’t explain why some people struck a chord with me and some didn’t.
Why would I pass judgment on the individuals standing there– deciding some are worthy and some are not? And what makes one worthy of my noticing them with compassion? Does it matter if they’re married or have kids or not? If they are an alcoholic? If they have mental illness? Or if they are truly a victim of economic circumstances leaving them down and out?
Consistency is important to me. I’m working towards a steady attitude of unconditional compassion for all mankind.
Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has an important message for me. It presents a moral imperative to show compassion for those whom we might consider unworthy.
That a Samaritan (considered by ancient Jews to be an impure group) would stop to help a Jew who was in trouble, was unthinkable by social norms of the day. Perhaps one point Jesus was making in the story is that the Jew was worthy of the Samaritan’s compassion, not because he deserved it, but because he needed it.
Nothing in this parable suggests that another must deserve my compassion, or that I should get anything in return for my benevolence.
Then why do it? Does feeling and acting compassionately have any reward, even a sense of satisfaction for having felt and done something for someone else? In the traditional Christian moral paradigm, compassion and giving might be considered a prerequisite for going to heaven.
But what about the here and now?
I know that when I feel compassion for others, and act selflessly on it, I feel a sense of peace and inner happiness. But research is finding that’s not all.
At the University of Michigan, professor of medicine Bertram Pitt MD, has found that forgiveness and regular acts of kindness do contribute to people’s overall happiness.
Studies on altruism, however, suggest that happiness is not the only benefit. A study of 2,700 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan, found that men who volunteered in their community were two and a half times less likely to die than non-volunteering men.
Tia Rich, Ph.D., Director of Stanford CARES (Compassion, Awareness, and Relationship Skills to Ease Stress), spoke with BeWell about the relationship between compassion and health. She says that: “… Compassion … can be expressed between strangers or even enemies…” such as was illustrated with the Good Samaritan.
She goes on: “In 2008, compassion’s role was the focus of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who reported the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies conducted on Tibetan Buddhist monks with more than 10,000 hours of compassion mediation experience. The research suggested that the experienced monks had greater awareness and attention to emotional stimuli and had a greater compassionate response to those stimuli. These findings suggest that compassion’s effect…may be a mechanism by which the stress response is reduced and health is promoted.”
K. C. Blair, Founder and Director of Good Samaritans International, says: “I never thought as a scientist I would find myself saying this, but our research data has led to our conclusion that compassion creates healing and maintains health.”
A freelance writer, breast cancer survivor, and frequent contributor to CNN, Amanda Anita, writes in her blog “How to deal with mean people”:
“Indeed, a slew of studies confirm that kinder people tend to live longer and lead healthier lives; volunteers have fewer aches and pains; and compassionate people are more likely to be healthier and successful.”
Whether or not you feel an obligation to love your neighbor as yourself, as I do, compassion for others can make life better for them. And it can also improve your own longevity and health. But, as anyone knows who tries to practice compassion, it isn’t about logic and head games, but about expanding the heart. Many of those who make compassion their way of life understand this.
When Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, began studying the effects of compassion meditation in 1992, he traveled to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and attached electrodes to the head of an expert meditation practitioner. He was surprised when the other monks began laughing.“I thought it was because he looked so funny with the electrodes attached to him,” Davidson recalled. But it turned out the monks were amused that he was trying to study the effects of compassion by attaching the electrodes to the practitioner’s head, rather than his heart.