Termed by psychologist and researcher Paul Slovic, compassion fade is the idea that the more people are impacted by a tragedy, the more empathy decreases. In today’s episode, Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen discuss compassion fade in light of approximately 500,000 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the US as of February 2021. It begs the question, “What are the roots of how empathy is born and engendered in us?” as well as, “When and how do we decide to extend that empathy toward others?”. Jason and Whitney ponder the questions as they dig deep into the factors that compel people to help and, at the same time, what prevents people from helping. Join the conversation and rediscover the importance of compassion and empathy in the individual’s life and society as a whole.
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Why Compassion Fades
In an article I read on CNN, I learned of a phrase called compassion fade. It’s the idea that the more people are impacted by a tragedy, the less, we as people, are impacted by it. I thought this is fascinating because compassion is something I’m passionate about. It’s a big part of my life. It’s important to examine this. Another way of explaining the concept of compassion fade is seeing it as the tendency to experience a decrease in empathy as the number of people in need of aid increases. It’s a type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on, as Wikipedia says, “The prosocial behavior that generates helping. The psychological theory may be observed by an individual’s reluctance to help when faced with a mass crisis.”
This term was developed by a psychologist and researcher named Paul Slovic. This is especially interesting in terms of COVID. I read that at the end of February 2021, 500,000 people have died from COVID. There’ll be even more deaths. It’s interesting because that number is large and yet it’s hard to grok that number when you think about it fully. One thing I’d like to know is how that compares to how many people died on 9/11. To me, that was such a big deal. This is mind-blowing. Jason, do you know how many people died approximately on September 11, 2001? What’s your guess? It’s a huge building. I’m assuming most of those there was the airplane that went down, the buildings, the towers.
The number that flashes in my head is 3,800 people.
It was less than that. It was 2,977, according to the quick number I pulled up. There were 25,000 injured. 9/11, for those of us who were alive during that time, it was such an intense event for the United States and the entire world. It was very traumatic. It’s not meant to be a comparison, per se. When you look at those two numbers, approximately 3,000 people died from that one event compared to 500,000 people who have died of COVID, that’s crazy. It’s because it’s been stretched out over time and our general human challenge of understanding numbers, conceptualizing those numbers, that might be one of the reasons that compassion starts to fade.
It’s fascinating to me because our empathy is going down as the people in need or the people affected go up. It doesn’t make much logical sense but it’s incredibly relatable. In terms of COVID, for example, we start to become numb and we hear deaths constantly. My first reflection is that we’re seeing it so much. Do we numb ourselves as a coping mechanism? Is that our way of handling something that’s so intense or even hard for us to understand? Until we put things into context as I did with the deaths of 9/11, sometimes without that context, it’s harder to step back and reflect on something. I wonder why is it that 9/11 is that day for me of horrific tragedy as it was.
COVID has certainly been disturbing and challenging for me mentally. It’s been spread out so much that at this point in my life at least it doesn’t feel as intense as 9/11. I’m curious if you feel that same way. We also have war. I suppose we could do a deep dive into all sorts of tragedies that have happened and examine them, our reactions to them, and how sometimes we place so much emphasis on one tragic thing but we don’t put as much emphasis on something that’s even more tragic.
It brings up the question of, what are the roots of empathy? What is it that allows us to look at a person we don’t know personally? Whether those were the lives of people of color that were taken by law enforcement, whether that’s the people who have died in the pandemic, the people who have died in 9/11, the people who died in the Holocaust, the people who die every year in global wars. To your point, Whitney, we could bring up a seemingly never-ending list of examples throughout human history of deep, large-scale suffering. To me, I wonder, what are the roots of how empathy is born and engendered in us, and then when and how do we decide to extend that empathy toward others? To reflect what you were talking about, there is a certain amount of psychological compartmentalization that occurs with people when they are bombarded on a daily basis with death, tragedy, loss, and suffering.
For me, as an empath, as someone who feels deeply and viscerally, I’ve always been an incredibly sensitive person, I compartmentalize too. If I ruminate too much on the devastation, suffering, and death, I will be crumpled in a ball or, on my meditation pillow, sobbing. Some days I feel this collective suffering in my body and need to cry. If I were to do that all day, every day, I would be a very ineffective human being because I would be sitting in my room crying about all the suffering in the world. On one hand, we can have an awareness of the totality of the suffering and the collective human struggle. How do we have the awareness of that and yet move forward and take action in life?
I had not even heard this term until you texted me about it. With Compassion fade, what is it that causes a person to remove most of or all of their empathy from a situation, not just to compartmentalize and move through the motions of their day to function as a human being and do things but to your point, Whitney, to perhaps pass a homeless embankment because there are many in Los Angeles? I was having a conversation with a mutual friend of ours and her tonality around it was like, “There are all these homeless people in LA.” I was like, “Do you care to ask why? Would you like to know why many people are homeless now? Would you like to take into account the economic devastation or the social inequity or the fact that the cost of living in LA goes up every year and we’re still in a midst of pandemic?”
As an example, to remove this judgment of like, “All these homeless people, they’re all over the street.” I wonder if we ask the question of why are they all over the street? It’s not to assume that they’re all drug addicts, social derelicts, ex-criminals, or all the other bullshit assumptions we make about homeless citizens or houseless people. Perhaps some circumstances brought them there that had nothing to do with derelict behavior, criminal behavior, drug abuse, or any of the other assumptions we make about them. To your point, it’s like, “If we look at the deeper social causes or the societal mechanisms that shepherd people into these situations, it might be an extremely uncomfortable thing to look at.” For those of us who aren’t homeless or houseless, it’s difficult to empathize.
I remember reading an article, there were 2 to 4 circumstances or dominoes, if you will, that would fall in our life that would lead most US citizens to being homeless. We’re 2 to 4 circumstances away from being homeless unless we are abhorrently wealthy. I don’t know that I have an answer. We have these discussions and sometimes we leave these episodes with not a whole lot of answers, it’s questions leading to questions which is great. The idea of compassion fade is perhaps also a psychological mechanism for humans to avoid looking at things that make them deeply uncomfortable.
If we look at a problem like homelessness or houselessness, if a person looks at that, maybe they feel guilty by having means and privilege. Maybe they feel guilty for having housing, food, money, and wealth. Maybe they feel radically uncomfortable thinking, “Maybe there’s something I’ve done that has, on a societal level, contributed to the problem of homelessness.” Maybe compassion fade, partially, is a way for people to inoculate themselves from looking deeper as to any guilt or shame they might feel for their privilege and/or their contributions toward a problem of this totality. That’s what comes up for me. It’s like, “I don’t want to look at it.” Maybe they’re trying to avoid feeling the awful feelings that might come if they do look at the problem.
Before I respond to that, I did look up the numbers. To be clear about COVID, for example, there have been 511,000 US deaths, and globally 2.5 million. It’s a lot. I don’t want to leave out the rest of the world. The 500,000 reference I had was for the US only, which is crazy to me. I also dug deeper into compassion fade. This concept was introduced in 1947 by Joseph Stalin’s statement, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic. Compassion fade contradicts the traditional model for valuing life that assumes all lives should be valued equally.” The reason that this feels compelling to us is that compassion is at the core of what we consciously believe in. This is a wake-up call because each of us experiences compassion fade and it’s very common.
One of the causes of compassion fade is that compassion is experienced greatest when an individual is able to pay more attention to and more vividly picture a victim. Vivid mental stimuli play a large part in us processing information. Our human ability to feel compassion is very limited. More vivid mental images are closely related to greater empathy. Since a large number of victims is more difficult to picture, it becomes more depersonalized causing us as individuals to feel our empathy is stretched thin. We’re stretched thin in general. Burnout is a major issue that we’re facing. I’ve been seeing the word burnout frequently. I don’t know if you have noticed the same thing. It reminds me of how the word anxiety has grown so much. It’s such a common term for us to use.
Burnout is quickly catching up to that. There are so many people are expressing that. I don’t know if it’s a growing awareness of what it means to be burnt out. I don’t know if we’re starting to feel more comfortable talking about it, identifying it. We are stretched thin as a whole. I bet you that’s another huge reason that compassion fade is happening. We only have so much capacity to feel and handle things on a given day. Many of us are trying to make it through the day. To your point about homelessness, Jason, if our survival is at risk, do we even have the bandwidth to have compassion for others?Compassion is at the core of what we consciously believe in. Click To Tweet
I would say, in a lot of cases, we don’t. If we are in that part of our autonomic response of fight or flight of fear of survival, it’s very difficult to overcome that chemical surge in our neurology. It’s difficult to see out of that state if we are simply trying to provide for ourselves and our family. What you pointed out, Whitney, is wise and accurate. Part of this that I wanted to bring up was a discussion that I’ve been seeing on social media. It’s a tangentially related part of this. There’s been a lot of people talking about how a lot of new-age concepts, thinking, and spirituality have mutated into this extremely discompassionate separate mentality with people. The Conspirituality Podcast I’ve listened to has been touching on this and Alex Ebert, who I’ve brought up.
There was a great Clubhouse room from 10:00 to noon that I was in called New Age Narcissism. There’s going to be a two-part series. Some fascinating topics were being brought up around how new-age thought, the stuff that arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s around Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich, Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking. These concepts have mutated into, “They must be homeless because they created their reality. They must have manifested that homelessness. They must have manifested getting COVID.” I’ve seen some disturbing messages, disturbing for me at least, to see certain influencers and people in our wellness community talking about like, “Why should we help you? You manifested that. Maybe if you were a better manifester or maybe if you were to think more positively, you wouldn’t be homeless, you wouldn’t have caught COVID.” Some people are like, “If I take the right supplements and I think positively, then I’m not a vibrational match to COVID, to homelessness and to victim consciousness.”
This does tie into what we’re talking about with compassion fade because not only is it a way for humans to provide themselves with some psychological reinsurance that they have some semblance of control over reality. When we have a financial meltdown, when we have a global pandemic, when we have massive uncertainty, if I create my reality, that means I’m in control of reality. I don’t have to succumb to the chaos outside of myself. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is it removes the empathy and compassion piece. This line of thinking could be like, “That child who had AIDS at birth, they must have manifested it or that must be their souls’ journey to have AIDS at birth or that person who’s homeless or that person who caught COVID.” We could extend this line of thinking but it’s an extremely slippery slope and there’s a lot of these viral mimetics that have infected social media of this mentality around manifestation, sovereign reality creation, and the power of creating your reality. That has gone to a dark place, in my opinion, of removing empathy and compassion toward others.
It’s a bit bizarre because some of the people who are claiming this on the one hand, they’ll say things like, “We’re all one human family. I’m saying these messages because I want people to wake up.” I don’t think there can be a container for saying, “We’re all one human family and we’re all connected.” “You created your reality. You’re homeless, destitute, and you have a disease. I’m going to stay away from that because that’s a ‘low vibe.’ That’s a low vibration and I don’t want my vibration to interact with that.” There is a part of it where a lot of people are adopting, as Alex Ebert says, this siloed reality of, “The disease can’t touch me. Homelessness can’t touch me. War can’t touch me. I’m immune to it because I’ve chosen to create a reality that’s immune to it.” That’s creating a level of very dangerous detachment from one another, that kind of thinking. It’s highly concerning to me. It is part of this conversation, of the lack of compassion and empathy.
It’s certainly a complex subject matter because there’s a lot of things at play and this is why it’s incredibly important to talk about. Hopefully, it’s getting the reader reflecting on this and our role. It certainly is for me. As I continue down the research on compassion fade, one thing I find is that individuals tend to tune out feelings because they’re trying to avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed or distressed. That matches up with burnout.
There’s also the bystander effect that can be part of this. The bystander effect is the concept that people are less willing to help in the presence of other people than when they are alone. I’ve been fascinated with this since I was studying psychology in school because the concept of it is different from reality for most of us. If somebody said, “Would you help somebody if you saw them getting robbed?” Logically you’re like, “Of course I would.” If you were put in that situation and there were other people around, it’s common that you would wait to see if other people would help first.
I got to experience this a bit. I was working at my desk in front of the window and I saw this woman. She wasn’t calling out for help but her tone of voice, I could hear, was distressed. I watched her for a little bit. Long story short, it looked like somebody hit her car. I’m not even going to get into the details of it. I remember observing her and my first instinct was like, “Let me take in the information to see if this woman needs my help.” The second level was, “Is anyone else helping her?” I was watching the reaction of people walking by and no one was stopping to help her and that’s when I thought, “I need to do something.”
It was the bystander effect in a way that I was waiting for cues from others to collect the information. As it was happening, I remembered the bystander effect in my head. I remember that I don’t want to be that person that stands by. I went to help. I was supporting her and other people got involved. It was an interesting thing to go through. Some people hesitate to get involved because they don’t feel like it’ll make enough of a difference and this was the other thing that came up with compassion fade.
To your point, Jason, sometimes we examine people and we’re like, “Maybe they brought this on themselves. Maybe they’re responsible. Maybe they don’t need my help.” Maybe part of that is we’re trying to monitor our resources and it’s like, “Am I going to use my energy, time, and my money? Am I going to use any of these precious resources to help somebody?” First, we want to step back and evaluate, do they need our help? That’s an interesting thing to observe within ourselves because it is, “You need to put on the oxygen mask first,” type of scenario for a lot of us because we can’t effectively help others if we haven’t helped ourselves first. Sometimes it’s very situational because it depends on exactly what’s going on. Am I going to put myself in danger? That was part of the thing I noticed based on the circumstances of the situation. I was observing to make sure if it was safe for me to go help this person. Sadly, it’s a bigger reality.
In the neighborhood that I’m in, there’s been a lot of crazy crime going on. It’s not an area that I would associate with crime but if you pay attention, there’s a lot of scary things happening. That’s disturbing too because I wonder if sometimes we do not help others because we’re afraid that it’s going to put us at risk, too. I was thinking about this in terms of the homeless because that’s something I would like to eventually get more involved in.
I was watching the documentary on Netflix about the Cecil Hotel and a huge part of that documentary is about the location of it in downtown LA and how close it is to Skid Row. As they were showing the footage and talking about Skid Row and all the homeless people there, I thought, “I’d like to do something.” They started talking about how dangerous that is and I thought, “How do you do something when it’s that dangerous?” You have to be a little bit cautious about it. Maybe that also contributes to compassion fade. It takes so much work to help people that we wonder if maybe it’s not even worth it or it’s too risky for us to do something.
If you do a web search for compassion fade, you’ll find a lot of resources but Wikipedia summed it up well. They are often looking for donations and that ties into what I’m about to share which is the concept of provision of aid. Research and charitable donations indicate that donations are negatively related to the number of people in need. For example, in 2014, the Ebola outbreak saw the loss of over 3,400 lives. Donation to the American Red Cross was $100,000 over a six-month period. However, the next year in 2015, a crowdfunding campaign for a child in New York to visit Harvard raised over $1.2 million in a one-month period. One person got over $1 million versus over 3,000 people, collectively, only received donations of $100,000 over a six-month period. That’s interesting. There’s a lot of factors at play. We’ll often think, “Who is this going to help? How is this going to be efficient and effective?” The other thing is our willingness to help is often motivated by the perceived efficiency of our contribution or efficacy. If we don’t think that we’re being helpful, then we’re less likely to help.
Crowdfunding, sometimes, you might donate money because nobody has donated money. You might donate because a lot of people have donated and you want to be part of it. There are many psychological factors at play with donating money. This is a super fascinating thing to examine. When you’re talking about the homeless, Jason, a lot of times we associate that with donations but many of us know what it’s like to see a homeless person hesitate to donate $1 to them because we’re afraid that they’re going to go buy drugs or something. We’re afraid that we’re not helping them.
Helping other people is very complex the more that we dig into it. It’s hard enough for us to help ourselves. I bet you another element of this is people are feeling straight-up fatigued, burnt out, hopeless, and helpless. It’s like, “I need to pay my bills. I’m struggling to pay my bills. I don’t have the resources to help other people.” An important element of this is that out of all the research I’ve done on self-improvement and happiness, one of, if not the number one thing that comes up is that when you help other people, it boosts the way that you feel about life. People are intertwined into our lives that when we do something for others, we end up feeling good about it, which improves our lives as a whole.
This brings up an interesting offshoot which is, is it okay to help others under the auspices of, “I want to feel better so I’m going to go help others.” I don’t want to position this when I say okay. I was about to say right. I don’t want to set this up as a dualistic exploration of is it right or wrong? I examine this too, when I have gone to feed the homeless, whether that was through our mutual friend, Nicole’s Martha Project nonprofit, or other mechanisms of rescuing animals, some of the things that I’m passionate about. I’ve sat with my motives, “Am I doing this so I can feel better?” If there is a part of me that’s doing it for that reason, is that bad? Is that wrong? Should I feel bad about that?
It also brings up an important question in terms of the psychology of human beings of, “Is there such a thing as a completely altruistic act where a sense of self or a sense of what am I going to get out of it is completely devoid of the action?” I’d like you to challenge me on this if you feel compelled, Whitney. To think about a human act that is completely altruistic, that is devoid of a sense of self it’s difficult to imagine. Something that might come up would be a child in the middle of the road and the parent sees the car coming for the child and runs out and pushes the child all the way only to get struck and killed for themselves. It’s something extreme which does happen in the world. Most human actions, even generous ones or ones that are based out of compassion, I don’t think are 100% altruistic. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but I wonder if our compulsion to help others is assisted by this chemical feedback of endorphins, feel-good neurochemicals, “I helped someone else.”
On a biological level, if we are compelled to nurture and bond with other humans chemically speaking then perhaps this desire to extend compassion, support, and generosity is also chemically motivated. That might not be a bad thing. I want to go feed the homeless. I want to rescue animals. I want to donate to this BIPOC nonprofit that’s for racial justice. Maybe I do believe in the cause and I do believe in helping people that are vulnerable, oppressed, in danger, in harm’s way. I also know that on a chemical level, after I do it, I will feel better. Perhaps that’s a feedback system that nature has created, so we do help each other. Maybe if that feedback system, chemically, wasn’t there, we’d be even less apt to help one another if we didn’t have that chemical reward system in our brain. Maybe it’s okay that I know going into this that if I donate, help, assist, feed, rescue, etc., I am helping because there was a higher compulsion to protect and assist the vulnerable. I also know I’m going to get something back from it. I’m going to feel better about myself.
Truth be told, there have been times where I have, personally, felt awful about myself and went out to deliver meals to the homeless or assisted in animal rescue knowing that I would not feel as depressed afterward. I don’t feel necessarily bad about that. Maybe it’s part of nature’s design to do that. Maybe it’s part of our collective healing. Think about this for a second. Maybe part of our collective psychological healing, not just post-pandemic but on a global level, neurochemically, if we were to all choose to dedicate more time to supporting one another, not only is that creating on a tangible, physical level, feeding someone, rescuing them, housing them, sheltering them but collectively on a level of psychology and brain chemistry all healing together. We’re all going to feel better about helping one another. That’s interesting to think about too, isn’t it? We talk about global healing. Maybe one route we can do that is to support and heal one another.
Speaking of healing, Whitney and I are passionate about not only these mental and emotional societal forms of healing but also, we talk about brain chemistry. We talk about physical healing. One product that we’ve been super stoked on with our healing regimen and our neural chemistry has been something called Rellies. We’ve mentioned this in a previous episode. They are a proprietary blend of terpenes. Terpenes might sound like an exotic thing because usually, neurochemically speaking, things like CBD or THC get all the glory. This amazing product that we’ve both been taking from this brand called Rellies is full of these natural chemical compounds found in fruit and vegetables called terpenes. These things are delicious because they’re blended with a base of MCT oil. The specific terpenes are functional in terms of mood support. We’ve been taking things like the Calm, the Joy. In this case, I’m holding up the Focus.
I’m a big fan, Whitney, of doing anything in my power with my mental health routine and you know that. I feel like taking this throughout my day for the specific functional benefits has been great. The Focus is what I usually take in the middle of the day to help out my brain chemistry. This one got some great ones like limonene and that’s a terpene that has been derived from natural sources. They’re in herbs, fruits, and vegetables. They blend these terpenes together to help you get your mood and your brain chemistry going in a certain way. I love this one in particular. The one we tried last time, Whitney, had a tropical flavor, didn’t it?
Yeah. This one I took as well is citrusy, it’s what I picked up on it. It’s not as tropical as the Joy.
That’s the specific terpene called limonene, which is a citrus-derived terpene. It would make sense. It is very lemony.
Jason, when we were talking about Joy, you were asking how we could incorporate it into recipes. We reached out to the Rellies team and asked them and they said, “Yes.” I don’t know if they gave us any specifics. If you look up MCT oil recipes online, there are many different ways that you could incorporate this into something if you prefer. Sometimes it’s fun to drop it into your mouth. Sometimes it’s nice to put it into food or a beverage. The number one thing that comes up when you look for MCT oil recipes is coffee, lattes. It became popular because of bulletproof coffee. I love how MCT oil makes coffees taste richer. MCT oil is a big part of the ketogenic diet. You certainly don’t have to be on a keto diet to enjoy MCT oil of course. It’s a great delivery mechanism when you’re taking something like this. If I remember correctly, because of the fat content of MCT oil, it’s a good carrier for it in your body and it helps it absorbs. Is that right?
Yeah. It assists with the metabolization of the compounds. For instance, in Indian cuisine, they say that the MCTs in coconut oil helps you to uptake their curcumin and turmeric better. It metabolizes easier. In the case of chocolates, high-quality fats help you uptake magnesium and chocolate easier. The same thing with terpenes, it’s about metabolizing it in your body. The MCT oil is a good delivery mechanism because it helps with metabolization.
When I was looking at the recipes, I found a great one from a website called All The Nourishing Things and it says, “40-plus MCT oil recipes that aren’t bulletproof coffee,” which is funny. It’s well written and well-formatted. The author talks about MCT oil, which stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides. She talks about which MCT oil is best and the benefits of it. For those of you who are curious, MCT oil is great for increasing your energy. It probably adds another level of focus to Rellies. It can reduce brain fog and improve mental clarity. It helps your metabolism. It can help with burning stored body fat. One of the reasons that people do the keto diet is to cut back on fat for weight loss or to feel more toned. It sounds counterintuitive because MCT oil is high in fat. It’s got the high-calorie content, not so much when you’re taking a dropper full. This is only one milliliter. It’s a very small amount with this if you’re concerned about oil in general. I have found that to be true.
Talking about this makes me want to start consuming more MCT oil because I used to be into it when I was focused on the vegan keto diet. It can also be great for the gut, reducing inflammation. It has antiviral and antifungal properties. It’s pretty awesome. Here are a few things that you could drop your Rellies into, you can put it into a matcha latte, which sounds great, and different teas that you have that you enjoy. You can put it into green juices. I found with MCT oil, it’s liquid at different temperatures but sometimes it’s a little weird in a cold drink. I don’t know if you found that too, Jason. It solidifies a little bit if I remember correctly. Maybe I’m wrong.Don't be the person that stands by; be the person that helps. Click To Tweet
Fat in general is a good emulsifier. With MCT oil, when I talk about emulsion, it has a nice way to make things creamier, denser, and thicker.
You have to remind me because it’s been a while. When you put oil in something cold, typically, it gets more solid. I can’t remember if MCT oil has that effect in a cold drink.
I’ve used MCT oil in a smoothie form and because it’s blended at a high speed, it doesn’t have that crystallization effect.
Maybe we have to go and try this out for ourselves and report back in our next episode, Jason.
We do. There’s a sparkling beverage that I like from a brand that was part of our holiday giveaway called The Bitter Housewife. I’m going to drop the Rellies into The Bitter Housewife and try it out with that. For you, dear reader, if you want to get your hands on these mood-supportive terpenes from one of our favorite new brands, Rellies, you can go to their website. We have a special website set up for you, it’s Podcast.Wellevatr.com/Rellies. When you’re there, use the coupon code 20WELLIES to get 20% off your order. They have three different blends. They have Focus, Joy, and Calm. We’ve been taking all three. We’re digging them so far. If you happen to be sensitive to things like flower essences, your body will also be very receptive to the terpenes in the Rellies.
With that, I had something flash on me going back to this idea of collective healing and this subject of when we extend compassion, support, and give our time and energy to others that we get this neurochemical kickback. It could be a way that we are motivated as humans to help one another. The part of the thing that might prevent people from doing this is that they have a hard time identifying with the inherent humanity but this extends to animals too. It’s overcoming a narrative that has been going on for generations in human society that has, in some way, taken away the value of certain beings in our world.
If we think about this, what we’re up against on a global psychological level with humans is depending on the society, country, and the family you grew up in, there can be a massive bias against people that are different from you. For a long time, not just in the American laws but in other global societies of looking at people of color or looking at slaves or looking at people from different ethnicities as less than human and thereby not extending the same rights and protections to those people based on our judgments and criticisms of them and racism.
The same thing with women. We talked about the suffragette movement and giving women the right to vote. We talked about the animal rights movement and trying to abolish slaughterhouses and these giant CAFO operations that are killing animals by hundreds of billions. Part of our opening of the circles of compassion and maybe overcoming compassion fade, Whitney, is a deeper conversation about the judgments and the devaluation of other beings that are different than us. Different skin color. Different religions. Different spirituality. Different species. Different sex. If we’re going to survive as a human species, we’ve got to address this even though I don’t understand how you worship, how you love, how you pray, you might look different than me, you might vote differently than me.
To me, one of the fundamental core issues we have to address as humans is removing our sense of empathy and compassion because of our judgments toward others. The question is, “How the hell do we even do that when we are facing thousands of years of conditioning that have told us, animals, black people, brown people, women, gay people, bisexuals, etc., are not worthy of the same love, protection, and rights as straight, white, cis-gendered people?”
You and I have dived into this subject in different ways in previous episodes. It’s getting to the root of why we don’t feel other people are deserving of compassion. I don’t know if it’s necessarily that we don’t have the capacity. You’re right, in terms of burnout, Whitney. A deeper level though is that we’ve been taught not to have compassion toward certain people. The hatred of plaguing our world is like celebrating their suffering in some ways, not just the reticence to extend a helping hand and have compassion but almost like celebrating people’s sadness and celebrating their sorrow, which is a dark aspect of the human consciousness.
It’s interesting because the other thing that comes up for me so much is the canceled culture side of it. When we see people not doing well, there’s a part of us that sees ourselves as superior. Many of us feel inferior in many elements of our lives, whether we have issues with our self-worth, we don’t feel good enough, we’re struggling to find our value in the world. It’s because we operate from a place of so much comparison, we will often perceive ourselves as better or worse than others. When we have an opportunity to see someone less than us, a lot of us savor it. Myself included. It comes up. I have to check myself on this daily. Mostly it is social media-related.
I don’t watch the news and think, “I’ve got it better than that person,” at least not consciously but maybe on some level, I do. Maybe that’s why we love watching reality TV. It takes us through these roller coasters. A lot of times, reality TV is showing the lowlights of people’s lives or showing us the extremes of people so that we can get into that place of thinking that we’re better than them. Of course, there are times we see them as better than us and maybe we watch that as a glutton for self-punishment much like we like to watch the news and tragedy.
That’s also part of the issue that wasn’t brought up in that Wikipedia page that I referenced is we do have a cultural obsession with seeing tragedy and we use that as a form of entertainment. Collectively, we love watching true crime. I brought up that documentary, the Cecil Hotel. That was one of the biggest Netflix shows because people like hearing stories of death, crime, and solving mysteries. We watch violent TV shows and we see images of people being killed or killing others. We get so captivated by all of that. I bet you that impacts our compassion as well. We’ve become numb to suffering through watching a lot of that and that’s an important thing to examine.
I would go on to say that in a lot of cases, the obsession with suffering is almost a way for us to feel safer and more secure in our own lives. If we are bearing witness to the suffering of someone and we’re obsessed with murder, death, and violence, it’s almost a way for us to feel better about our own lives psychologically. “I guess I don’t have it as bad as I thought. Look at how bad it is for them.” It’s a mutation and a tentacle of the comparison trap. You and I have talked a lot about the one branch and tentacle of the comparison trap, which is looking at people that are doing better than us and making ourselves feel bad about that. I also think the flip side of that is looking at people who “have it worse” or are suffering more. We relish or celebrate their suffering so that we can feel safer or more in control or better about our own lives. That’s absolutely the other flip side of that.
I don’t know if it’s possible for us to liberate ourselves from the comparison trap completely. Maybe there are certain avatars in human society over the civilization and Millennia that have done it. It’s about managing how we are trying to obtain a greater sense of safety, security, control, and self-identification through the externalization of these things. It’s like, “Why do we have to celebrate the suffering and the downfall of others to feel better about ourselves? Why do we feel like we need that?” I’m saying this so that I can check my judgments in my life and I can check my behavior, Whitney. It’s doing it in subtle ways.
I’ll tell you more about this off the show because it’s some sensitive, detailed information about someone we both know and care about. I was having a conversation with them and they were in a lot of distress. They were having an emotional meltdown, to be honest. It was pretty intense. I was walking them through this conversation and holding space and compassionately listening. At one point, I observed my mind in mid-conversation judging them for their suffering. I was judging their suffering.
In real-time, I had to walk myself through this idea, “This is a person you love and you care about. Why are you judging their suffering? Are you judging their suffering because you want to feel better than them right now? Are you judging their suffering because you feel, at this moment, you’re not suffering? Therefore, this person has taken certain actions or acquired certain things or done certain things in their life to make them feel better, more important, more successful and it didn’t work.” Was that a part of my judgment of like, “All this stuff you did that you thought was going to make you feel better, it didn’t.” It was like, “How many times have you done that? How many times have you gone off and bought something, did something, said something, presented yourself in a certain way because you thought it would feel better?”
I had to observe my judgment of this person suffering that I love and say, “This isn’t about you, Jason, trying to make yourself feel better and comparing your life to their suffering.” I caught myself doing that in real-time and thought, “That’s not what this is about. They’re having a very real moment of pain. The most important thing for you to do is bear witness to their pain and give love and not compare where you’re at in your life with their suffering. That’s not what this is about.” I caught my brain trying to do it. My brain wanted to go there. It’s like, “Jason’s going to make himself feel better because this person he loves is suffering and he’s not.” It’s not that our brains aren’t going to go there.
The question is, “Can we take action to overcome that urge?” On some level, we all have that urge. The comparison, hierarchy, we’ve talked a lot about this. Instead of ignoring someone’s pain or acting cruelly even if our brains are telling us to do it, can we make a different choice? That’s where we reclaim a lot of our power, observing when our minds want to do something cold, detached, doesn’t honor someone suffering, and say, “No. We don’t have to make that choice. We can extend some love and compassion here.”
The other thing too that I’ve noticed is how we will take away compassion from certain people in our society because we feel like their success, fame, and wealth makes them undeserving of it. We’ve talked about this in previous episode about certain celebrities like Demi Lovato, Kevin Love, and other athletes coming out around mental health and the reactions they got on social media. Some of them were like, “What do you have to be depressed about? You have tens of millions of dollars. Everyone around the world knows you. You’re beautiful. You’re attractive. Fuck you.” That was a lot of people’s response to them coming out about their mental health, their depression, their addiction. That response is not allowing us to heal the collective.
If we think because of fame, money, beauty, and influence, somehow it doesn’t mean that this person has any emotions or the capacity to suffer. That’s something we need to check on a collective level. Like my example of helping our friend who does have a lot of wealth, success, privilege, and notoriety, it doesn’t mean that she is immune to suffering and pain. It’s a good thing for all of us is to remember that people are deeply feeling human beings and that these external things don’t absolve them from the human experience.When you help other people, it boosts the way that you feel about life. Click To Tweet
This conversation is a good opportunity for me to check where I’m judging people. I’m not extending as much compassion as I can in my life because there are probably areas where I’m not fully extending compassion to others because of my judgments toward them. Like many of our conversations, this is part of our healing process here in the show. How can we “do better?” One of the biggest ways we can do better is trying not to tune out. I feel burnt out and overwhelmed a lot and you know that as my business partner and co-host. I don’t want to use that as an excuse to remove my compassion and my love for other people. In some ways, I have done that. This is a good introduction to me, to this concept so that I can start to do better and not close down.
With that, we are wrapping this episode. If you want to get your hands on one of our favorite new products from Rellies with these amazing terpene products, these functional mood boosters, you can go to Podcast.Wellevatr.com/rellies. You can use the coupon code 20WELLIES to save 20% on your order.
We’ve got some incredible emails and direct messages. It’s super raw. It’s super open. People are ripping their hearts open to us. Sometimes it feels overwhelming to respond to these kinds of messages but at the same time, it feels like an honor when we receive them. If you feel moved by any of the subject matter, if this strikes a chord, if it sticks a knife in your heart, if you feel any profound emotions coming from these conversations, you can always email us, [email protected]. You can shoot us a direct message on our Instagram account, which is @Wellevatr. Until next time, we encourage you to look at where you can inject more compassion and empathy into your own life as we are going to challenge ourselves to do the same. We will keep the conversation going with the next episode of This Might Get Uncomfortable. Thank you for reading. We appreciate your love and support. We’ll be back with another episode soon.
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