On Managing Compassion


We have seen this story many times: A terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing happens. People find out about it, and are around the world shocked, horrified, scared, and saddened by the terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing. The social media posts come forth: "My heart goes out to the people of _____." Profile pictures are changed to include whatever symbols have been declared to now be associated with the terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing. Thoughts and prayers are offered.

Usually within a couple of weeks, it happens again, and the cycle repeats itself.

That response can also get a bit more extreme, where accusations fly that whoever has not publicly responded to the terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing are either too cold-hearted to care about terrible horrible no-good very-bad things or even in their silence support the terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing happening more often.

This is all very natural, but not particularly helpful, and can even be downright counterproductive to efforts to prevent terrible horrible no-good very-bad things from happening in the world.

The World Is Awful

Today, the day you are reading this, about 150,000 people died.

We can't even come close to really grasping that, much less dealing with it psychologically. All you need to do is think about how difficult it is, how horrible it is, to mourn the death of one family member or friend or even casual acquaintance. Now multiply that by 150,000 every day, and you'll see the impossibility of truly representing even one day's worth of deaths in your mind.

A substantial percentage of those deaths are going to be elderly people who have lived wonderful full lives and are now up against an illness or disorder their body and the current state of medicine simply cannot handle. Those deaths are without a doubt saddening, especially for those that were close to the dying person, but there is a certain amount of preparation for it and an understanding that this death is a release from excruciating pain.

But that leaves thousands of people, every day, who are lost to murders, accidents, unexpected health problems, malpractice, and disaster. Every single one of them could quite reasonably trigger a reaction of outrage and fear and compassion for those close to the deceased.

And then there are the many more injustices and outrages and wrongs of the world that don't result in deaths: beatings, sexual violations, domestic abuse, robberies, frauds and scams, prejudice and discrimination, entire systems set up to cheat people out of their lives and livelihoods. We can very conservatively estimate incidents like these to have several million victims a day. Again, fear, outrage, an extension of compassion to those who are harmed are very natural human reactions.

And of course, on top of that, there's awfulness done to non-humans, in forms like animal abuse, species extinctions, clear-cutting of forests,

This is not by any means a new phenomenon: The scale of death, destruction, and injustice in the world became too great for one person to comprehend once there were more than about 1000 people.

Don't Just Stand There, Do Something!

Most people are quite compassionate, and in the face of hearing about somebody in trouble, the human instinct is to try to help them. This instinct is usually useful: For instance, after a building collapses, typically whoever happens to be nearby starts digging through the rubble to rescue those that were inside, weren't killed during the collapse, but will die if they don't get access to fresh air soon. In other cases, the instinct actually makes things worse, because the would-be rescuer might fall victim to whatever harmed the person they're rescuing, which is why an important part of training for rescuers is how to avoid becoming another victim.

Far more common than the case of rescuers succumbing to what they were trying to rescue someone else from, though, is the simple problem: What if there's nothing useful for you to do? Now, not only do you feel fearful, outraged, and loving towards the victims, you also feel completely helpless.

And that adds yet another way to throw yourself into psychological overload, because the simple fact is that in the vast majority of cases of terrible horrible no-good very-bad things happening in the world, there is absolutely nothing useful you can do, at least to address the immediate problem: You cannot get to the people in trouble in time to give them the help that is needed. Even if you could, you are likely to lack the skills and resources necessary to be a help rather than a hindrance. Even if you could get to them in time and have the skills and resources needed, you may lack the experience to use your skills well. And even if all of that worked out perfectly, it's very likely that somebody else who was closer, better trained, and/or more experienced got there before you did and already did the thing you were going to do.

So what we need to find, as compassionate people, is the right middle ground: Compassionate enough that we will act when we are in fact the right person to come to another's aid, but not so compassionate that our hearts, minds, and resources get pushed past the point where we can do anything. Angry enough at the injustices of the world that we will try to address them rather than tolerate them, but not so angry that we begin to think that we should destroy everything and everyone. Fearful enough of the dangers of the world that we take reasonable steps to protect ourselves and those around us, but not so fearful that we are cowering rather than doing what needs to be done. Stray too far in any direction, and you've just made yourself another victim of the terrible horrible no-good very-bad thing.

Towards a Middle Ground

You can only do so much. Your brain can only handle so much information. Your heart can only do so much loving. And yet, as discussed, there's a huge amount of awfulness in the world, far more than you can truly wrap your brain, heart, and hands around. Which means the very first step to finding that middle ground is:

1. Acknowledge and accept that there is a great deal of awfulness in the world that you cannot and will not respond to in any way whatsoever.

This will be hard. This will be particularly hard for those that pride themselves on being caring and compassionate people. This will be even harder for people who have built their entire lives around using the power of their caring and compassion to help others. It may help to remember that your lack of response isn't caused by a lack of desire to make the world a better place, it's that the problem of awfulness is so huge that no one person or even one organization has the ability to address it all. Now that we know we have to ignore a great deal of the awfulness in the world, the next step is to start figuring out what awfulness you can and should respond to. And that leads to the second rule:

2. Always respond to awfulness directed at you, to the best of your ability.

Often, this involves getting help from other people: If you have a health problem, get to a doctor. If you have a mental illness, get to a therapist. If someone is hurting you or threatening to hurt you, call the police. If your house is on fire, get out of there and call the fire department. Do so without shame: You can do nothing for anybody if you haven't dealt with the problems directed at you.

You probably think that was extremely selfish to stop there, and you'd be right. But we do have to start there, because otherwise the self-sacrifice gets to the point where you exhaust yourself taking care of others and ignoring your own needs, which would make you another victim. So next up, we're going to look at ever-expanding circles around you.

3. Respond to awfulness directed at those you have promised to be responsible for, to the best of your ability.

Your children. Your aging parents. Your committed partner. Your household pets. The ones nearest and dearest to you. These come next on your priority list, not because you don't care about the world, but because these are the problems you can do something about and committed to addressing.

Importantly, this comes after taking care of yourself. One important reason for this is that if the awfulness harming you is coming from someone in your inner circle, you need to remember that your needs matter. You are under no obligation to care for someone who is abusing you.

4. Make sure not to be a source of awfulness yourself.

If your response to the awfulness of the world is to become mean, hostile, and cruel, that's not helping. If your response to being mistreated is to find someone weaker to take your rage out on, you're part of the problem. If you find yourself regularly responding in this way, the most compassionate thing you can possibly do is withdraw from parts of your life that are making you act this way, and get into some therapy so that you stop responding with mis-directed anger.

Mis-directed anger is different from well-directed anger. If someone harmed you or people close to you, it's normal to be angry at them, especially if that someone didn't even apologize for their actions. The bigger problem is when you shift from being angry and hostile towards the person that harmed you to being angry and hostile towards people who did nothing to harm you: That kind of shift is often the source of domestic violence and hate crimes.

5. Respond as you are able and willing to the awfulness directed at your friends.

Now we're starting to get into fuzzier territory. You have no obligation to help your friends - it's great if you can, and a friend in need is a friend indeed, but you are now choosing to become involved rather than required to step in. Your friends are people you've invited into your life and vice versa, and you can probably have a substantial impact if you give them help when they need it, so making that choice is certainly a worthwhile and compassionate thing to do, but you must remember you always can say no and feel no moral qualms about doing so.

6. If your job is that of combatting the awfulness of the world, do that job to the best of your ability.

If you're a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, EMT, nurse, doctor, therapist, case worker, etc, you are indeed doing your part to make the world a less awful place. Do your job to the best of your ability with compassion for the people you are helping, and you will have made a big dent. Kudos!

7. Get to know your neighbors, and help them out when need be.

Remember how I wrote earlier that getting to the place where help is needed is the first step in providing aid? These folks are the ones you can get to in a matter of minutes. This kind of assistance is invaluable in a lot of situations: In natural disasters, you're often the only people able to help each other out at first, and even if you aren't the more you can do for each other the less there is for the rescue teams to do. If there's crime in the area, you can keep a lookout for each other, report matters to the police, and just keep your eyes and ears open. If there's domestic abuse, your house next door is a place for the victim(s) to escape to. This doesn't have to be an organized or official effort in order to be effective: Just inviting them in for a drink can make a big difference when times aren't so pleasant.

8. If you still have the energy, work on addressing local issues.

Odds are, you are part of a local community large enough to have some awfulness in it that needs to be addressed. Remember the old slogan of "think globally, act locally"? That's the place to start. You can by all means work with larger organizations to do this work, but whether it's, say, suicide prevention, combatting homelessness, or working to stop drug addiction, you can make a big difference very close to home. If your actions save a few hundred people from a terrible fate, you've done a substantial amount of good in the world and should recognize that your compassion made a difference.

9. If you can, chip in on larger issues.

There are probably some bigger-picture changes you want to see in your state, your nation, or the world. There's nothing wrong with contributing a bit of cash, some volunteer time, a vote, a symbolic protest, or other relatively small-scale efforts. Odds are, your individual efforts won't have a large impact towards any of those causes, which is why this should come after local efforts, but they'll help push overall trends towards your goals.

You may end up more involved in these kinds of movements over time, especially if you're doing something that has a real impact locally on these issues. Here's the hard part, though: Your role in these larger movements should not pull you away from the local work you are doing, nor should pull you away from being compassionate to your family, friends, neighbors, etc. Otherwise, it is very easy to be seduced by the glamour of being the Grand Poo-Bah of some national movement, and put all your energy into efforts that may help the organization and may help you as the Grand Poo-Bah but don't help solve the problem you are trying to solve.

The Alternative

Some people are right about now heavily criticizing this article for its stance on these issues, because it feels like you're abandoning those further away from you. Again, you're compassionate people, you want to heal the world and make it better, and the instinct is to try to care about everything and everyone.

But you don't. You can't possibly: There's more awfulness in the world than you can possibly handle, as discussed above.

Instead, you try to care about everything and everyone that you know about.

I can guarantee that out of the hundreds of thousands of bits of awfulness that happened just today, you didn't even notice the vast majority of them. The filter that used to be in place was quite simply that you wouldn't even hear about the events going on outside your local community, which meant that you and everyone you knew were blissfully ignorant of most problems in other communities.

So how come certain events outside of those circles of care I just described above cause an outpouring of grief and outrage and anger, while most of those events just pass by unnoticed? Because you read or watched or listened to a news story about them. Which means that that news outlet's reporters, editors, and management, along with when you happened to be paying attention to that news outlet, made the decision for you about which of the terrible things that happened today are things you're going to care about. Meanwhile, while you're outraged and/or saddened about something going on halfway around the world, you're too focused on that to pay attention to the outrage going on right down the block from you.

Something else to be aware of is that the media industry is well aware that this kind of story drives viewership, so they're constantly looking for tidbits that will tug on the heartstrings in just the right way to get you all but demanding every bit of information you can possibly get on the events in question. Again, all of which is keeping you from problems you might be able to do something about happening in your own neighborhood or city.

The outrages that make it into the national press tend to get the attention, resources, and help that they need. The big difference you personally can make is in the outrages nobody has even heard about, because nobody thought it was newsworthy that, say, a landlord was kicking out their tenants illegally so they could gentrify the neighborhood and raise the rent, or a drug gang has taken over an area of the city and terrorized local residents and the police are not responding to the threat, or a dishwasher in a local restaurant is actually a victim of human trafficking and is getting paid absolutely nothing for their work. If you aren't hearing about these un-answered outrages, then your local circle of care is either not large enough, not diverse enough, or not deeply connected enough. Those are all problems you can solve by getting to know people different from yourself and spending enough time with them that you can have the kinds of conversations where you hear about the problems they face. If you're having a hard time finding people different from yourself, start with the people you interact with regularly but aren't part of who you consider your social circle, e.g. the person who delivers packages to you, or the person behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant.

I'm not suggesting you should stop caring. But you should choose your own filters about what you are going to care about, rather than letting people you've never met choose for you. Because if you let other people choose, you're likely to miss something important.

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