We have all seen the harrowing pictures on TV. The crying children, their desperate traumatised parents, the dead bodies on beaches, the hungry, the wounded, the sinking overcrowded boats, accounts of people screaming as they see their families drown around them, the huge no-hope refugee camps. We’ve all seen the suffering.
Yet rather than becoming more receptive to refugees the current climate appears to be becoming less so, with hostility growing around the world, new walls being built, border controls made stricter, boats slashed and pushed back to sea, the Calais camp flattened by bulldozers, and the innocent migrants of war, the victims, confused with their persecutors, accused of being terrorists, scapegoated for our societal ills, and kept out at all cost. Rather than responding with mercy we appear to be responding by withdrawing our help, becoming indifferent or even by hating.
How can this be?
I think there’s a very inspiring and scientifically evidenced explanation. It has to do with empathy fatigue. It’s inspiring because as well as offering a clear explanation of what is going on – it also provides an uplifting solution for turning the tide.
To understand the explanation we need to distinguish between ‘Empathy’ and ‘Compassion’. Both can now be measured using precise machines that measure brain activity. ‘Empathy’ is our capacity to ‘walk in someone else’s moccasins’. To see the world as they do. To relate to their suffering so deeply that it gives us real insight as well as an actual physical resonance in our own body as to how they must be feeling. This physical resonance has been measured in experiments. Subjects asked to empathise with someone who is suffering show increased activity in the parts of the brain that we now know correspond with suffering. Being empathic is therefore painful and difficult. Those that have been asked to become empathic during experiments for prolonged periods also report becoming fatigued, distressed, discouraged, and evasive and these ‘negative emotions’ are also seen on the brain wave measuring machines in the places in the brain where such emotions are experienced. The weariness experienced after a long endurance of such feelings has become known as empathy distress, or empathy fatigue.
In contrast ‘Compassion’, which can be defined as ‘unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings’ appears to have very different effects on our brain’s activity. To be compassionate of course we first need to be able to be empathic. But what distinguishes compassion from empathy is that compassion also involves a motivation to act. It is this preparedness to act that makes it so different, and something apparent in its recordable effects in the brain. Far from leaving people exhausted and distressed the contemplation of what might be done leaves people uplifted and inspired. It is as if the empathic brain is stuck in the same prison as the person who is suffering, so suffers the same despairs, but the compassionate brain, having seen the suffering, works out what needs to be done and is itching to go and do it – to help release the person from prison.Contrary to empathic distress, compassion is a ‘positive’ state of mind , which reinforces our inner ability to reach out to another who is suffering and to care better for them
There is now a growing amount of scientific evidence to substantiate this view. Pioneered by Richard Davidson’s research in his neuroscience lab in Madison Wisconsin and now replicated elsewhere (see here for a good article: http://info-buddhism.com/Empathy-Compassion-Neuroscience-Ricard-Altruism.html.) experiments have taken buddhist monks who have for years cultivated both empathy and compassion and plotted how their brain waves look for both states. They look quite different. Compassion includes empathy but it causes considerably more activity in the brain – indeed the first recorded experiment into Compassion found the measured gamma wave activity of the monks meditating compassion measured higher than any gamma wave activity ever before reported in the scientific literature about brain waves. Gamma waves are high frequency brain waves that underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. Since the size of the gamma wave is related to the number of neurons flying around this was evidence for the cultivation of compassion causing massive far flung assemblies of neurons to fly about with what they found to be ‘a high degree of temporal precision’. The subjects cultivating compassion also showed patterns of brain wave activity in areas of the brain associated with positive feelings. This occurred even when the person was only just contemplating what could be done (which was all they could do in the experimental setting) let alone actually doing it.
So, in short, compassion by combining empathy with action is a shed load more pleasant and therefore sustainable than empathy alone. This suggests that compassion fatigue (which I have written about elsewhere on this blog) is a misnomer, what we should actually be concerned about is empathy fatigue, there isn’t really such a thing as compassion fatigue, compassion is actually uplifting and empowering, reducing fatigue and weariness.
So how does this all relate to the refugee crisis? When we slouch passively on our comfy sofas and encounter those awful images and accounts on TV the invitation, dictated by the form of this type of information delivery, is to empathise but not act. As we wearily dip once more into our empathy there is no opportunity for action. The item on the news is quickly followed without a pause by another item – perhaps another distressing image of suffering in a different context or we move straight to the weather or the sports results. No space is there for empathic feelings to develop and expand into compassionate ones. No opportunity to consider how we might help, or suggestion we might do so. As a result we end up having to cope day after day, night after night, with a difficult set of feelings that have no easy release. These build up over time. The news leaves us feeling drained, powerless, discouraged and perhaps not even wanting to watch it any more – empathy fatigue. I think this accounts too for why we are becoming more hostile towards refugees – more determined to keep them out. We end up blaming them for the powerless hopeless feelings they inadvertently invoke and that we want to keep out. Worse still we can end up hating them … and hatred is infectious.
But there is good news in all this.
And the good news is….
to allow ourselves to act.
There are many many ways to help refugees, both in this country, and abroad. Not everyone has the same style of compassion – some like to give money or other resources or to try and raise awareness about the issue, or to volunteer for one of the many charities helping refugees, teaching english, befriending, signposting, providing a cultural bridge and so on. Wherever we are and whatever we do there is some way we can help. Often it is close to our doorstep. It does not have to be a huge commitment. An hour a week can make a real difference to someone.By acting we convert our empathy into compassion, keep our capacity for empathy alive, and, as a delightful unsolicited side-effect – end up feeling loads better.
I saw an illustration of this at ‘the jungle’ in Calais. I was surprised to notice that although the suffering of the migrants in the camp was palpable and obvious most of the volunteers were walking round with gentle smiles on their faces. It wasnt that they didn’t care – quite the opposite -they had found a way to care actively and in doing so accessed the relief of that.
I am involved with a scheme in Oxford called Sanctuary Hosting. We match hosts (generous people with spare rooms in their houses that they are willing to offer freely) with guests (homeless migrants). The scheme has been phenomenally successful, expanding dramatically over the past year and with many examples of deep generosity and successful compassion on the part of the hosts. It also supports the conclusions here. Many people when they applied to become hosts said they wanted to be involved in the scheme because they felt so helpless/powerless/ distraught by the refugee crisis (empathy fatigue). Once they become involved (compassion) I have lost count of the number of times that they have reported feeling uplifted enriched or expanded by the experience. Often they’ve been surprised at this. Yes they may be living alongside someone else’s ongoing suffering and they may be learning first hand about the appalling things that person has been through, not just in their home country but on the way to this country and also, sadly and ongoingly, once they arrive here. But alongside all this there is also a wonderful relief in knowing that, although they cannot take the suffering away, at least they can feel better about themselves because have been able to do something tangible to help.
We need to follow their example – of acting- in whatever way feels right for us. The important thing is to do something. If enough of us do this I am convinced the tide will turn again and we will start to see hearts and minds soften up around the world. Many of our hosts in the scheme have found that their neighbours and friends are glad of the opportunities to be involved in helping the guests. Many of these friends have gone on to become hosts themselves…
Rather than confronting head on the lack of mercy in the world towards refugees we need to understand it. Those who have empathy fatigue can no longer cope unreactively with being reminded of the suffering of refugees. Confronting them about the plight of refugees is likely to make things worse – it risks stimulating the difficult feelings they are trying to avoid and setting up an evasive spiralling reaction of fear, denial, disbelief, aversion, righteous entitlement, hostility and so on. Instead we need to gently model a different way of doing things, one in which both individuals and whole communities take back the responsibility of actively caring for our traumatised brothers and sisters from overseas. We can demonstrate not only that this is an effective and low cost solution (and there are many examples of this) but also that the process of doing it makes us all feel better. That way we can attract others to do the same and begin to erode their fear around encountering the suffering of others by demonstrating a joyful solution.
Just as hatred is infectious, so too is compassion.