"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

The Day Compassion Died

Why it matters and how can we get it back

Compassion. It’s such a hyped up word. It’s for romantics, for idealists, for the immature. It’s not for go-getters. So screw it.

This is the 21st century, for goodness sake. It’s a tough world out there—there’s little room for this lovey-dovey tenderheartedness-crap. Life’s about survival, about making your mark, being tough, standing up for yourself, staking your claim, being successful—about leaving a legacy. If you snooze, you lose. Period.

Is this really true? This loss of empathy or unwillingness to show kindness—didn’t really take place overnight. It’s been happening over the course of years. We’ve just become blind to it. It has inconspicuously invaded our lives, our society, and culture—and gradually eroded the very fabric of our humanness.

This is the era of technology, of artificial intelligence, of instantaneous and constant connectivity. This demand for uninterrupted connectedness to each and every one, through social media networks and online devices has swept us along on its rollercoaster wave. It is the era of the start-up. The era of the ever younger and brighter and smarter entrepreneurs. Which is all so fascinating and exciting. We have become emancipated!

And yet, never has mankind been so alone, so lonely.

So emotionally disconnected.

So empty.

So without true compassion.

We are in danger of turning into narcissists. We are especially attracted to strong narcissistic leaders and will follow them blindly, even into the abyss, because they so effectively disguise their arrogance as confidence and competence. They charm us off our feet, but it will come at a price, once we’ve served our purpose.

Let’s be honest for a change. Don’t confuse being “professional” with having compassion. Don’t confuse “following the letter of your job description” with having compassion. Don’t confuse being “nice” with having empathy. Don’t confuse having “ulterior motives” (irrespective of your occupation) with having compassion. Please don’t.

The problem is—the reality is—we don’t really care. We want to make our dollar, get paid, get paid well, and take our leave. Other’s feelings, thoughts, their needs, their hopes, are of little importance to us. Since we were young we had to scamper for ourselves. Fend for ourselves. Now that we are adults, it has become second nature. And without thinking much about it, it has become all about me. Me, me, me.

And, since we’re quick learners, we learned to survive, make our mark and become successful. Oh, very successful. We have finally arrived. We’ve finally become somebody.

When are we truly successful?

    • When we start our own business?
    • When we speak three languages?
    • When our child finishes college?
    • When we become a manager?
    • When we become director or CEO or Dean of the University?
    • When we become the Principal of the school?
    • When we become the President?
    • When we make it as senior-partner?
    • When we receive our MD degree? Or the specialist degree? Or even the PhD?
    • When we become department head?
    • When we study law and pass the bar exam?
    • When we sell our startup for $ 10 million?
    • When we have over 250,000 twitter followers?
    • When we can retire at age 32?
    • When we sell a 100,000 copies of our bestseller book?

Yes, these are all markers of success, but they do not teach us compassion, nor humility or guarantee us happiness. Often success, especially sudden fame and fortune, will lead to the exact opposite. This happens when competence transforms into complacency, when assertiveness transforms into arrogance and when compassion is replaced by indifference.

Why is it so easy for us to stumble on the little things and make ourselves guilty of the following?

    1. We stand at a traffic light, waiting for the green signal, when an unkempt man with a bulky backpack approaches our vehicle, holding a cardboard sign. It reads: “No job … Please help … God bless.” We turn our heads and break eye contact. I know—I’ve done this. I feel embarrassment, anger, disgust—thinking, why doesn’t he get a job? He’s anyway just going to drink it out, and I sigh relieved when the green light saves me from any further contemplation. Minutes later I turn up my driveway, press the remote and escape into the safety of my comfortable home, quickly forgetting about the hungry man with the crumpled cardboard sign.
    2. We become hot under the collar when an immigrant struggles to address us in English (or French.) Our immediate reaction is, “how does the government even allow them entrance if they can’t converse in any of the official languages?” If you could understand his Fārsī, he would have told you he also speaks Kurdish, Arabic, and Greek and that he had just started learning English, his fifth language.
    3. When we get stuck behind the old lady crawling along at 40 instead of 80 km/h, we have to restrain ourselves not to use the horn to help her along. At the first opportunity, we swerve around her 1990 Oldsmobile, glancing with annoyance at the diminutive figure, arched behind the wheel, her head barely visible above the dashboard. She should only be allowed to push a walker in a nursing home! We accelerate, relieved to be able to race to the next red light where we are forced to wait until her silver Oldsmobile catches up with us.

What if we paused, took a few minutes of our precious time, and instead, did the following?

    1. Next time while waiting for the green traffic light, wind your window down, gesture the homeless man over, and, when you give him something, also speak to him. Ask him. He may just tell you he used to be an accountant and lived in a respectable neighbourhood until he made a poor decision … not so long ago … (But by the grace of God, yes, yes, and your hard work, you are able to drive that fancy car…)
    2. Do this test next time you run into the gentleman who keeps addressing you in Fārsī and halting English. Learn a single word in his tongue and see what happens. Greet him and say, “dorood.” It means “hello.” Chances are 99.999 % certain his face will break into a broad grin and he will ‘dorood’ you back. You will have extended an invisible hand of goodwill toward a total stranger. (The biggest gift you can give yourself, next to staying fit and eating sensible and living a life with compassion, is learning another language—it will sculpt your brain.)
    3. When you notice the old lady in her Oldsmobile veering from left to right across the road, going at a snail’s pace, instead of overtaking her as fast as possible, stay behind her and turn your hazard lights on—become her road-safety escort. Follow her home and make sure she is okay. And if you get out of your car and go speak to her, once she had turned into her own yard, you may just discover a few things. She’s had no children who live in the city and was on her way back from the pharmacy with pills for her husband, who’s in bed, recovering from a stroke. “But,” she would say, “please excuse me, sir. I have to go inside now. I’m okay, thank you for your concern. I’m the sole caregiver of Roger, and he’ll get worried if I stay away any longer. Nice talking to you.”

But we don’t do this.

Compassion. It’s for romantics, for idealists, for the immature, we claim. It is indeed the 21st century—and life is about survival, about making your mark, about being successful.

But, if we fail to learn compassion in the process, we will doom ourselves to a life of disconnect, in spite of all the latest online gadgets. We will have an emptiness that can never be filled with fame, or money, or power, or position, and will remain lonely, in spite of surrounding ourselves with thousands of people and admirers and fans. Then we will indeed be screwed.

Compassion. Tenderheartedness. It isn’t weakness. It’s a strength. It’s a force that transcends everything: language, race, political affiliation, age, gender, vocation, apathy, narcissism, and even hatred.

There’s hope. Compassion can be cultivated. We can still find our souls.

© 2016 All rights reserved.

Image: – #homeless #hope

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