Fostering Compassion in the Culture of Mean
by Loi Eberle, MA, CC
November 22, 2010
I was saddened by the recent headline: “1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand”. Students quoted in that Yahoo Daily News article insisted that the suicides were not due to the particular school, rather, were the fault of the “culture of conformity…If you’re not an athlete or cheerleader, you’re not cool. And if you’re not cool, you’re a prime target for the bullies.”
Unfortunately we all have seen too many similar accounts lately. Barbara Coloroso, a national anti-bullying expert, says the school is allowing a “culture of mean” to thrive, and school officials should be held responsible for the suicides — along with the bullies. “Bullying doesn’t start as criminal. They need to be held accountable the very first time they call somebody a gross term,” Coloroso says. “That is the beginning of dehumanization.”
Recently I heard nationally recognized author and educator, Dr. Michele Borba, speak about how to turn cruelty into compassion. Often I reflect on memories of the pain of childhood years and the concerns of parents, and wonder, “why people can’t be nice”?! Dr. Borba described research showing that the potential for violence goes down when empathy is up. She also discussed the recent research showing that as babies we are hardwired to be empathic. [Read further at www. Micheleborba.com.]
Fostering compassion, or empathy, is encouraged by virtually all spiritual traditions. “Recognition of the unique value of every living being… reverence for life, compassion for all, sympathy with the need of all individual to find truth for themselves, and respect for all
religious traditions” is a fundamental proposition of the Theosophical Society. Pema Chodron, Buddhist author and teacher, describes the kinship with the suffering of others that emerges from the discovery of our own soft spot, our noble or awakened heart, which is said to be present in all beings. She writes “Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, this soft spot is inherent in you and me…”
Yet, despite the hardwiring for empathy with which we were born, increasingly there have been waves of violence among our youth. Even more disturbing is the current form of electronically induced bully-cide, which has resulted in far too many suicides.
Most everyone is “plugged in” to some degree; many youth are plugged in over 7 hours a day. The result is a tremendous lack of face to face contact, what Dr. Borba calls a “heart deactivator,” a prevalence of “ME, ME, rather than WE.” How, then, can we move toward a positive culture of WE? Certainly a large portion of our culture shares a pervasive electronic connection, which need not be considered all bad. Many spiritual traditions teach that joy is found by recognizing our inter-connection. Really, the question is, ‘how is this electronic connection being used, and what is the consciousness that’s driving it?’
Jane McGonigal of The Institute for the Future presents on www.ted.com some ways the highly popular computer games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds, and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. She asks what if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems, and points out the problem that most gamers feel they aren’t as good at reality as they are at games. Her research shows that gamers collectively spent the equivalent of 5.93 million years gaming, which is actually at the magnitude of human evolution. She reports that on average gamers have spent 10,000 hours by the age of 21 playing games. This is the amount of time the research described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers says is required to reach virtuoso status, in any area. McGonigal has concluded that gaming among our plugged-in youth is so prevalent because it creates urgent optimism, a fabric of trust and stronger social relationships. Gamers are willing to work hard to solve problems. Gamers are super-empowered individuals. What is disturbing is her conclusion that gamers can have stronger relationships online than in real worlds. Recognizing that computer games are a powerful platform for change, the Center for the Future is attempting to apply gaming technology to solve real problems.
And yet, what are most people plugged into? There are not many examples of altruistic behavior in our lives; mostly what we are exposed to is a culture of cruelty, which interferes with our ability to develop empathy. On October 14, 2010 His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to the community of scholars at Stanford University, at their request. He affirmed that we are all human beings who have the right to achieve a happy life. Emphasizing that the fundamental basis of survival is compassionate motivation, he spoke of our current need to develop genuine friendship based on trust that comes from transparency and honesty.
Author Richard Rhodes worked with incarcerated male murderers to research the topic of his book, Why They Kill. He learned the steps that lead to homicide begin with brutalization in the form of violent coaching either by a parent, a peer, or a video game watched ad nauseam. This turns to belligerence that turns to violence when the person is seriously provoked. Rhodes learned from his research that culture has power, and is the critical factor in creating either an attitude of compassion, or one of conflict.
The power of good examples and positive role modeling is critically important. Unfortunately there is a lot of emphasis on “winning” and ridicule, in our media and on our collective playgrounds. There are not many good examples of altruistic behavior. Fortunately, we don’t need a lot of good examples, perhaps just one good one! Research shows that one individual, or a single instance, can elevate someone’s heart and cause a ‘moment of compassionate conversion’.
Jesus Christ teaches us to love our enemies, reminding us that this is the difficult work; it is much easier to love our friends and family. Other spiritual teachers teach that the most effective way to overcome our anger is to learn to better understand the person who is causing us conflict, which helps to create empathy. Social researchers show the one thing that most easily unifies a group of people who hate each other is to have them work together on a project where the outcome is very important to them. Perhaps this is how deeper understanding occurs.
Aristotle thought the best way to teach morality is by example. In settings where a climate of compassion is successfully being established, a key component is teaching restitution and social skills. One school teaches its students to examine their interactions by asking themselves, “Was it helpful or hurtful?” If they see that it was hurtful, the next question students are asked is, “What are you going to do to make it helpful?” In Japan, the police give criminals an opportunity to confess and show contrition by making restitution. If they do, it goes much easier on them. Perhaps as a result, they have a very small prison population.
In an attempt to offer real world examples of altruism, Dr. Borba described how the principal at KLO Middle School in Central Okanagan, BC helped them become a “blue ribbon school” by teaching ways to build each other up, rather than deflate each other. Their rule for compassion is that all threats and cruelty will be taken seriously.
“A Violin Requiem for Privacy” written by Elias Aboujaoude recently appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education. It was his response to the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman music major who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate streamed a video of him having a sexual encounter. Aboujaoude, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University wrote in his Violin Requiem: “the small inviolate zone of privacy that we all need, that is absolutely crucial to our psychological equilibrium, has now become virtually impossible to maintain.”
“The greatest minds in the field of human development have stressed the importance of individuation,” Aboujaoude explains. He describes individuation as “a process by which people achieve and maintain psychological stability by separating themselves from others.” He quotes the influential developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, as considering individuation to be a more important barometer of health than social success: “mature involvement with another person can happen only when someone is comfortably autonomous and happy in his relationship with himself.” Aboujaoude then quotes psychologist Carl Jung’s view that individuation is the person’s “fortress against the weight of group mentality and group demands…it’s at least as important to be oneself—that is, to be separate—as it is to belong…individuation is a natural necessity inasmuch as its prevention by leveling down to collective standards is injurious to the vital activity of the individual.”
The challenge is to encourage healthy individuation by developing an autonomous sense of self and also to learn to co-exist. How do we learn to navigate and balance these seemingly contradictory needs? How do we encourage finding and hearing one’s own individual voice while existing in community? Too often, those who are different, who don’t “fit in” are bullied.
Dr. Borba cited the American Psychological Association’s analysis of over 24,000 kids in 153 studies that showed the consistent factor involved in creating bullies and victims was a lack of good social skills. Other studies show bullying often involves young people who have learning difficulties or are gay. What can help is for people to become more resilient about navigating their differences. It has also been observed that among the 85% of kids who witness bullying, when those witnesses learn the skills to stop the bullying they are watching, they can stop the bullying in a matter of minutes. The first step is to evoke empathy; the second is to have the courage to take action, the most important and most challenging part of this process.
The Sept 13, 2010 NBC Dateline show “The Perils of Parenting”, outlined some simple ways of stopping bullying behavior. It involves these steps:
1. Evoke one’s sense of empathy
2. Make contact with and befriend the victim
3. Use distraction to stop the bully, also try to stop them from having the attention
4. Speak out about, and clarify the bullying behavior, stating that what they are doing is “mean”. Do not insult them, focus on their behavior
5. Tell someone else, or text for help
6. Exit the situation, so as to not give them an audience or attention for their
Some may remember the news broadcast years ago about a nurse attacked on a corner in New York City. Although all the neighbors saw and/or heard her screams, only one person called for help, and no one stepped forward to stop the attack. Understandably, they feared they could become victims too, unless enough people would stand together to confront the attackers. The collective sense of horror about people’s unwillingness to risk involvement, fortunately, has resulted in more heroes willing to risk stepping forward to help other victims. These heroes can inspire us to connect with our empathy, discover our courageous voice, and find the courage to risk intervening to help a person being victimized.
Rehabilitating the bully is more difficult. Frank Jude Boccio’s article “Love in full bloom” [May 2010 Yoga Journal] encourages us to focus our energy where we actually have impact, while maintaining a calm state to benefit our own well-being. He quotes his yoga teacher, Satchidananda: “judging and criticizing hardly helps us maintain a serene state of mind. We should not divert attention from our own practice in order to try to reform those who are unlikely to heed advice…if you try to advise them, you will lose your peace.”
In a recent interview Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche said: “Our true nature is completely pure and good…there isn’t the slightest bit of difference between your true nature and the Buddha’s.” Explaining that it is “already perfect and complete,” he points out that “none of our confusion and our fear can change this inner purity. It doesn’t get worse when we suffer or improve when we become enlightened like the Buddha. We don’t need to add anything to it or take anything away, nor do we have to do something to get it. It’s here with us each and every moment, like a diamond in the palm of one’s hand… The problem is that we don’t recognize what we’ve had all along. We get so caught up in the drama of our lives that we don’t see the radiant purity of our own minds. This nature is with us even when we feel scared, lonely and angry.” [Shambala Sun, Sept 2010]
It would definitely be helpful to learn to connect with our own true nature and provide positive examples and friendship to those being bullied. By encouraging the victim to be in touch with the beauty of his or her own true nature, we can help dissipate the sense of victimization that incites the bully. By doing this, we awaken our own heart and encourage interconnection. In this way we open up a path of joy for all of us by recognizing the beauty of who we already are.