The Importance of Kindness, Empathy and Compassion

Kindness

I was flipping through the NY Mag’s The Science of US (which offers fun bite-sized articles on human psychology and sociology that keeps you clicking from one article to the next – I bet this addictiveness has something interesting to say about the way we behave too) and I came across this article entitled You Are Built to be Kind.

Basically, the point of the article is encapsulated in a short video about how human beings are built to be kind and empathise with each other. The video also made a very interesting point that rather than Charles Darwin’s concept ‘survival of the fittest simply meaning ‘every woman for herself’, what he really meant was ‘sympathy is the strongest instinct humans have’ and ‘communities with the most sympathetic members will flourish and raise the greatest amount of offspring.’

But what really struck me was how scientists were interested in the vagus nerve which is activated when someone is feeling compassion. They also found that lower class individuals have a higher vagus nerve response when they see someone suffer than when wealthier individuals witness suffering. As psychologist Dacher Keltner puts it, it ‘literally is a compassion deficit that’s produced by lots of wealth.’ He also goes on to note that poorer communities tend to give more to charity than wealthier people.

And that in turn reminded me of this Buzzfeed article about a teacher who taught his students about the awareness of privilege by giving them each a piece of paper. He then placed a bin at the front of the classroom and told them that every student in the classroom was representative of a country’s population. To get into the upper class, all they had to do was toss their paper into the bin. The students at the back, of course, pointed out they had an unfair advantage, being much further away from the bin than the ones in front.

As expected, most of the students in the front (though not all) made the bin while most at the back (but not all) didn’t. The teacher then pointed out to the students that it was only the ones at the back who complained about the disadvantage but the ones in front didn’t even realised how privileged they were.

Be Kind, Plato, John Watson

So often we forget just how privileged we are. We flip through tabloid magazines and watch reality shows about rich kids who are born into a life of trust funds, private jets and mansions on every continent of the world, and sigh with envy at how great their lives are – and we forget how truly great our lives are. I am so fortunate to have been born into a middle class family with parents who love me and have taught me the values that truly count in life and are able to afford to give me a good education. I am fortunate to have a better advantage than those at the back of the classroom, even though I wasn’t as lucky as those who got a front row seat in life right from the start. And I am lucky that I have enough characteristics of grit, hard work, ambition and responsibility that I am able to dig my heels in and work hard to achieve something even better in life. I am lucky not to have been born in a situation so bad where the grit I possess might not be enough to carry me through to find a better way of life for myself.

And I am also grateful that life has taught me many lessons, many of which I probably didn’t appreciate during the learning of, but in hindsight I am able to look back and be thankful for because it has taught me something I otherwise would not know and made something of my character that wasn’t there before. In the past, I did not realise it but I am privileged for this alone, the ability to learn from life and to be able to survive these hardships and these personal valleys of humiliation and take something with me out of it so that in future, I will remember my experiences and not judge others who are going through the same thing. Hardships and humiliations are never easy, yet they make us stronger and they also make us more empathetic. I’ve talked this over with some close friends as well who have experienced their own valleys of humiliation and their own difficulties and we’ve all agreed on how these experiences, while they certainly weren’t easy, have made us better, more empathetic and sympathetic characters, more inclined to forgive where our younger, more naive selves would have been harsher and much more judgmental.

I’m still growing older and learning every day. And I hope that with each passing year, I’ll be able to remember more and more never to judge, to always show compassion and sympathy, to be strong when I experience difficulties and frustration, to fight for myself and remember to fight for others who are less privileged than I am, and, more importantly, to always, always, always be kind.

{Top Image sourced from Death to the Stock Photo}

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