Would you accept an invitation to the Mind and Life Institute’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies? Or does it all sound too flaky?
It’s hard not to sound pretentious when trying to be substantive in a superficial world. I might easily have dismissed the headline — Creating a Caring Society — as so much new-age twaddle… but if I had I’d have been guilty of the same superficiality that I frequently decry.
Citing Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist from The Max Planck Institute, the article offers an intriguing distinction between empathy and compassion. The first is a mere sharing of feelings; the second is an impulse to turn feelings into action. Sure, empathy is a good start. But feeling another’s pain doesn’t help feed the poor, shelter the homeless, enlighten the ignorant, or comfort the bereaved.
In fact, failure to take action may actually cause distress and suffering to the empathizer, who feels frustrated and inadequate for having provided no relief to the one in need.
The more pervasive problem, however, is our increased detachment from the plight of others so that we don’t feel at all. No surprise there… if we responded as we should to every news story of poverty, illness, and violence, we’d all be on a perpetual Valium drip. So instead we plug into our electronic kaleidoscopes and tune out the real world.
We can only preserve our sanity by deadening ourselves to the flood of human suffering that washes over us day and night. But to ignore the call of compassion leaves us less than human.
As with so many things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Feel pain, but not too much pain. Respond to the pain of others with concrete action. No, it’s not easy. But it’s the only avenue we have for restoring an emotionally and morally healthy society.