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Abusing the Illusion of Immunity

Regenerations/5 - Businesses, society, family: less and less time for compassion

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 30/08/2015

Logo rigenerazioni ridHow selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner."

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

Processing our own and others' emotions is requiring more and more effort from us. We have drastically reduced the community and personal spaces, places and instruments to accompany, tend to or elevate our emotions.

The culture of the big firms, and all that is entering the entire world coming from it is producing a growing quantity of negative emotions (disillusion, fear, anger, anxiety, sadness...) that are treated as actual "refuse", so they are rejected, eliminated or taken as the markers of the "loser" type of workers. Should anyone show them or make them visible in the same places they were generated, they get punished by getting stuck in their career, or, not infrequently, losing their job. In the past few years these collateral emotional effects have grown so much that it made big businesses introduce new professionals who have been delegated and contracted to manage emotional illnesses produced by unsustainable relational styles at the workplace. This is how everyone gets engaged in a downward spiral similar to what we find in (more or less) hypothetical factories that pollute the work environment and then, instead of eliminating the poison, give their workers free cure in detoxifying clinics, or create new internal departments for detoxification of employees affected by toxic fumes. But while our ethical sensitivity no longer accepts such solutions in health and environment, we still serenely approve them in the management of our emotions, and so we do not rebel against our companies that first make us sad and depressed by keeping us in unsustainable working relationships, and then they offer techniques and experts to treat them; perhaps we even thank them for offering these treatments for free. Just like getting a disease and then (trying to) cure it was the same as not getting ill at all. And so we continue to multiply negative emotions and their cures - they cannot help but grow together.

In fact, these new authentic emotional traps of poverty depend on the strong decrease of compassion, one of the most precious and great human virtues, and its replacement with techniques and tools. Compassion literally means "suffering" (pati) "together" (cum), that is, the ability to know how and want to share the pain of others. Compassion is the form of behaviour that is the opposite of envy, because while the envious person rejoices for the suffering of others and suffers for their joy, the compassionate one suffers for their pain and rejoices for the joy of his or her neighbours. Envy, a sentiment produced, encouraged and cultivated by our competitive and rivalistic culture can be cured by limiting its serious damage, by having people capable of compassion enter the social organism, as they are a natural antibiotics for the virus of envy. In the Western tradition (but not only in that: just think of Buddhism) compassion is something different from what we now call empathy, because in compassion there is a wilful participation in the pain of the other in order to alleviate it, which is not requested for in case of empathy. Compassion is the desire to do good to those who are in a state of suffering. It arises from the knowledge or hope that the sharing in that suffering can somehow have a relieving effect.

Where and how is compassion created? In past generations, where compassion was more present and in certain periods even superabundant (during wars and after great collective mourning) the main place where they formed and fed compassion was inside community, beginning with the family. Compassion had its institutions, and its upkeeping occupied much of collective energy. Funerals, for example, were thought of as a great form of community compassion. A few weeks ago while attending a funeral in my native village, I was very impressed by the amount of kisses and tears falling on the cheeks of the widow and children of the deceased, as an expression of collective and true compassion that in past decades had lasted for several days. The many communities of life used to be the ones that created our capacity for compassion and the places in which to practice it. The long nights were not yet occupied by television but were the time for compassion, exercised by adults between themselves, and watched by the children who learned it by watching. In those past societies you learned compassion starting from a very young age by listening to the stories and fables, reading great literature, that created and cultivated the ability to suffer and rejoice in the suffering and joys of others so that they were becoming, little by little, our own, too. How much compassion can new digital narratives and video games played on tablets create in our children?

Compassion is an experience that never leaves us immune. It changes us, it contaminates us with the feelings and suffering of the other. We all have a natural empathy in varying degrees, but compassion begins when once taken empathy and felt something of the emotions of the other, I decide freely to be infected by the other's suffering, to share their emotions, to become their supportive neighbour and companion for a stretch of the road. For this reason, while there can be (and there is plenty of) empathy without kindness, for compassion agape is needed, the decision to lift the concrete person by loving them, like the Samaritan did with the victim of robbers. Compassion, then, is not a unilateral and unidirectional act. It is a relationship, a "feeling together" and being mutually and simultaneously aware of experiencing the same emotions and the same feelings. It is this mutual and contemporary experience that relieves pain and multiplies joy. Some instances of pain can be alleviated only by compassion. If you don't reach this conscious emotional reciprocity, compassion is not complete and does not bear its gorgeous fruits. If, in fact, I cannot enter into the feelings of the other - or the other does not give me permission to do so - so that we become "one heart"; compassion can neither relieve the pain of the sufferer nor make those who take the pain of others on themselves feel that typical and profound joy. Therefore, the experience of compassion teaches us that it is not true that pain and joy are two opposite feelings: the greatest types of joy are those that arise from shared and accompanied pain, where the pain is still there but next to it there develops, like a rare flower, a mysterious and sublime type of joy.

The immunitarian culture of big firms does not want compassion because it does not like the mixing and the contagion of emotions in ordinary work relations, and so it discourages and fights this contagion. But since the emotional suffering in the workers grows, companies want to respond by offering empathetic techniques for the demand of compassion, creating professionals who deal with the emotional distress without having to "touch" it deeply. The development of compassion between workers and managers is inhibited and prevented, restricted to non-working community spaces. Corporate culture occupies more and more areas of life where it exports its contempt for compassion and replaces it with the techniques (I saw these professionals, even inside a sanctuary). And so, paradoxically, these figures and these tools do nothing but increase the dissatisfied and frustrated demand for compassion, despite all good and often excellent intentions. As long as the dominant culture in our businesses and in our society we continues to consider pain, vulnerability and wounds just as costs and evils to be avoided and fought, without touching them, and welcome them and allow them their own space as necessary components and often friends of human beings, they will only multiply the real emotional evils that arise from partial, immunitarian, artificial and therefore sick human relationships. Empathic techniques, professionals and consultants can be very helpful in all areas, provided they do not become substitutes and "monopolists" of that widespread civil compassion constituting the profound spirit of every society.

Finally, compassion has its typical words. The first among these is attention. We do not cultivate and practice compassion if we are distracted and not attentive to those who pass by, those who work at the desk next to ours or live in the apartment across the street. There are too many victims of robbers who are abandoned and injured along the roads to our Jerusalems and Jerichos because there is a lack of people capable of noticing them. Without this inner attention that is spiritual vigilance we fail to exercise the second fundamental verb of compassion: to look. Compassionate people move around in this world watching it. They have enough attention and inner silence to watch the life that flows near them. They look and see, and so hear the infinite cry of compassion that rises from the cities. And once they have seen and heard the pain of others, they freely choose to exercise compassion by bending over, standing close to, taking care of the pain of others. Compassion is essential to live well, because it also enables us to multiply our joy by sharing it. It is a kind of a moral muscle: if it is wasted, it not only prevents us from reducing the pain of others, but even diminishes our capacity for joy and life. The culture of immunity dominating our time is wasting this muscle and so we take more and more pains to feel emotions for the suffering of others, and even more to act moved by compassion.

We have an immense need of compassionate people now, more than ever. We are increasingly inundated with psychological, moral and spiritual suffering, but the ground cannot absorb all this water because too few people are capable of compassion, and still less exercise it. Yet they are the ones who can radically change the moral quality of the places of living. Sometimes one compassionate person is enough to save an entire community. Life functions and flourishes when we are able to discover the beauty that surrounds us, letting it love us. But it is no less important to try and discover the pain around us, love it and let ourselves be loved by it. The greatest gift that you can do to help your child is to increase their capacity for compassion. Because it is compassion for the pain of others that makes us see the greatest beauty of the earth, the one hidden in people's hearts.

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