Perhaps Compassion leads to Serendipity (a research reflection)

Preface:

I’ve been recycling writing with the best of them for ages, and I thought some of you might be interested in what’s been keeping me so busy…er…silent. So, I’m posting my homework. You heard me.

Back in July, I saw an advert for a Social Psychology course with Coursera and the intro video was so fascinating that I had to sign up (“What? Study for free at the best universities in the world? Who needs credit? SIGN ME UP!”). Thus, the same week that I went back to work, I found myself doing the reading, watching the lectures, writing the homework for the SocPsych class based out of Wesleyan University with Prof. Scott Plous. Talk about back to school.  The culminating activity was to have a “Day of Compassion” (DoC) and to reflect on what we had done that was compassionate, how social psychology applied to what we had done, how much of an impact our actions had on others, how our behaviors might be different in a month or so, and how to spread the compassion “movement.”

I was pretty happy with the day, and the essay that I built from it. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And maybe you’ll notice your daily compassions and give yourself a pat on the back as a result. You deserve it. ‘-)

The only thing remaining to finish the class and get my certificate is the exam.  I am compiling notes even as we speak.  What a great feeling. Next up? Intro to Philosophy via the University of Edinburgh. (I am an unrepentant geek / nerd / bookworm.) Much love to everyone.  ~LD

***

Perhaps Compassion Leads to Serendipity (a research reflection)

Serendipity happened. The week that I contemplated how best to create a day of compassion in my life, I was also considering how to help students discover rhetorical strategies used by David Foster Wallace in the speech he gave at Kenyon College, Gambier, OH in 2005. He told this story: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” (Shea 233). Wallace concluded his speech saying, “This is water; this is water” (238).

As I was studying the speech and making marginal notes detailing Foster Wallace’s use of hyperbole, understatement, sarcasm, and appeals to pathos, logos and ethos, I didn’t notice the full title of the speech: “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life” (Shea 232). I noticed the full title only today when I decided to include his fable in my reflection. I was clutching desperately for ways to express in writing both what I did and what I learned, and Foster Wallace’s speech spoke to a deep place in me that needed to remember that, after all, this is life.

How did you define compassion, and who were the recipients of your efforts? Was your behavior different from normal?

When I was a teen, driving my parents crazy with my little angers and frustrations, Momma said to me once, “You get to decide how your day is going to be.  You just say it, out loud when you wake up. Today is going to be great.” Later, when “bad days” diminished in number and my anger and frustration focused more on individual people, many of whom I didn’t even know, my wise Momma told me, “Try to think one nice thought about R— today. You don’t have to say anything, and it doesn’t have to be big; it could be that you like her shirt, or how organized she is. But think the nice thought.” Because these strategies worked, Momma’s wise practices have long been the basis for how I approach my day-to-day life and try to avoid the traps of frustration and anger that routine and pressure can inevitably produce. Most who know me consider me to be quite compassionate; sometimes they call it patience.

After the reading and lectures on altruism and empathy, though, I felt quite confused about how to understand compassion, so I did some additional research and decided to incorporate broader meanings of compassion into my own understanding and practice. Thomas Merton was a stoic who wrote that compassion is “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things” a definition that fits well with the idea that deciding on a thing can make it so, or begin to create a space in which it could be so, eventually.  The connections I found between Momma’s wisdom and the concept of compassion was further confirmed in Kelebeyev’s assertion “that compassion enables people to extend the limitations of the ‘I’, enabling them to identify with the other and see him [or her] as a peer”, which helped me understand why my conflicts with R— and others, were lessened when I applied Momma’s “nice thought” practice by creating common ground, even if it was unspoken.

Because my time outside class is limited, I decided to act out the day of compassion with colleagues and students. These two groups comprise both in-groups and out-groups for me and for each other.  Our students are members of the upper economic class in our city (out-group on a personal level), while most teachers and staff are members of the working class or, at best, middle class. Some of the teachers, like myself, are in yet another out-group as we are foreigners living and working in Mexico. Still, we are all passionate members of our school community (in-group). This crossover among groups can foster many interesting and stubborn conflicts (both superficial and significant) among the different groups. I did not feel that my behavior was particularly different from my usual behavior, though I did make an effort to be aware of both my behaviors and others’ reactions to me more than I normally would, and that may have colored some of the events of the day, or at the very least my perception of events (fundamental attribution error? Maybe).

What are the psychological costs and benefits of behaving compassionately? In your view, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

The biggest cost of behaving compassionately is the energy required to do so consistently. I am by no means perfect at it, but I’d say I’m seventy-five percent consistent in being compassionate in small, moment by moment ways thanks to Momma’s “tricks”. I found it ironic that the day that I decided to pay conscious attention to my compassionate behaviors that it was much harder than I usually find it to be. I found myself wondering during the course of the day if I am compassionate enough, and what else I can do. These thoughts are not new, but they took on heightened importance in light of the rattling dissonance created by the assignment. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that even the smallest acts of compassion (allowing that a cashier who says “have a nice day” as if it were a death sentence may have had a fight with her husband this morning) provide a great benefit. My smile and enthusiasm in spite of another person’s flat aspect or down attitude may be enough to turn their day in a better direction. Whereas, an angry or sarcastic or uninterested response from me may leave them stewing. I’d like to think that at least sometimes the juxtaposition of my response to someone else’s “bad day” could make a difference in whatever is left of their day.

How did others respond to your compassion? Do you think they noticed a difference in your behavior? What attributions did people make for your behavior, and why?

The most salient feature of the particular day that I chose to pay attention to was that I got a lot more hugs than usual, mainly from colleagues, but curiously even from a few students (who are still “new” to me, so we’ve not established the strong relationship that we will have by the end of even this semester).  No one mentioned anything different about me or my behavior, not even to note that I was in a particularly good mood; I’d like to think they didn’t notice. As a result, I don’t know what, if any, attributions people made about my actions that day.

If you wanted to encourage others to behave as you did during the Day of Compassion, what psychological techniques would you use? How can social psychology be used to foster a more compassionate society?

This aspect of the assignment seems difficult to me.  I tend to teach by modeling (not that my behaviors are always model-worthy), but in the case of my students and even in some cases my colleagues it is occasionally useful to talk about and show a sense of social responsibility. We are much more fortunate than so many in the larger community that it’s important that we give back whenever we can in both small and large ways by being generous not only with our time and money, but also in our thoughts without expecting anything in return. When thinking how to answer this, I guess I’d like to be the older fish that Foster Wallace mentions in his speech, the one who points at “water” in the hope that others will notice that water is, indeed, water. This life is the only one we have, and it’s happening every second, even when we don’t notice.

If you were to predict your behavior one month from now, do you think it will be changed as a result of participating in the Day of Compassion? If so, how? If not, why not?

In a month I hope that things at school will have calmed down enough that I can extend my miniscule practices of compassion to our sister school for underprivileged and at-risk students to spend time with them not as a tutor or teacher, but as a playmate who happens to be a native speaker of English.  Otherwise, I will continue to be myself and apply the lessons I bring with me from all my life in everyday small ways.

Resources

Kelebeyev, Vadim. “Compassion.” Shalom Hartman Institute. 12 Oct 2011. Web. 10           Sept 2013.  http://www.hartman.org.il/Research_And_Comment_View.asp?Article_Id=814&Cat_Id=324&Cat_Type=research_and_comment

Myers, D. G. Social Psychology (11th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 2012. PDF.

Shea, Renée H., et al. The Language of Composition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2013. Print.

Strain, D.T. The Humanist Contemplative: Essays on Spiritual Naturalism. June 2010. Web. 10 Sept 2013. http://humanistcontemplative.blogspot.mx/2010/06/compassion-stoic-philosophy.html

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