In these turbulent times, the question What do we owe each other? seems to be vibrating through the cosmos. Do we as humans owe our fellow humans anything? Or shall we continue to view our existence as one in which we should focus only on ourselves? These are not new questions. I think humanity has been struggling with them since we first looked to the stars. Perhaps now, as we teeter on environmental collapse, witness social and political upheavals, and struggle in pandemic isolation, is the time to revisit this question.
My answer is compassion. Compassion, within Buddhist traditions, suggests that there are no boundaries between humans, that we all travel the same path through life. In this way, compassion becomes a process that involves noticing the experiences of others, how those experiences have created pain, and then acting in some way to help ease that pain. Compassion becomes a process of inquiry that allows people to move beyond their current knowledge to come to understand the lives and experiences of oneself and others. With compassion, one sees oneself as a part of the human experience and reaches out beyond illusionary personal boundaries to become part of humanity. Compassion creates feelings of empathy for others and cultivates the bonds of social connectedness. Compassion is essential to the fabric of society, the quality of human relationships, and as a force that builds and sustains human connections.
As a dietitian, and in practical terms, we can explore how compassion can be used as help in the healing process. In his TEDx Talk, Dr. Stephen Trzeciak discusses how our healthcare system is in a crisis of compassion. Compassion compromises less than 1% of all communication by physicians and a lack of compassion is what patients remember in addition to their physical pain. He reports that compassion has actual physical effects on the bodies, including immune responses. Compassion creates human connections, and he believes that just “40 seconds of compassion can be a powerful therapy – not only for the receiver of compassion, but for the giver, too. It changes everything.” And at a minimum, whether we are healthcare providers or not, don’t we owe each other those 40 seconds?