SLR 069: Removing Roadblocks to Compassion

Simple Life RebootI wanted to edit it out.  In our 67th episode, Interview with Mom, we asked if she had learned anything from observing our Simple Life Reboot journey.  I hoped to hear how inspired she was, or perhaps how we were making a difference.   Instead, she paused, and said:

“Well, I’ve learned that you’re much more compassionate than I realized.”

What?!!  I’m compassionate!!  In fact, I’m super compassionate!!  I wanted to shout and hop up and down and defend my tender, caring, empathetic nature…. but, the interview was being recorded… so, after  a few awkward chuckles, the conversation simply continued.

Later, after much fussing and pondering, I realized the insightfulness of Mom’s answer. People assess our character based on our actions, not our intentions.  My desire to be compassionate had become obscured.  Hoping I wasn’t the only one with this problem, I did some research.

Princeton Seminary Study (Darley & Batson)

One of the more fascinating studies exploring the impact of situational stress on behavior occurred in 1973.  In this study, researchers recruited 67 students from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Students were told the study pertained to religious education and vocations.

Students each completed a personality questionnaire.  Then, researchers instructed the students to travel to another location on campus to deliver a brief talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. As the students were leaving,  each was given a map and one of the following three instructions:

  1. “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving…”
  2. “The assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.”
  3. “…It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over…”

Each student would then travel to the designated location and encounter an actor in the entryway of the building in which the student was to present.  No one else would be present.  The actor would not engage the student but would be doubled over as if in severe pain, eyes closed and coughing.  Researchers studied the extent to which the students sought to assist the actor.

As you might expect,  assistance decreased with increased time pressure. However,  what might surprise you is that there was little difference between the medium and high time pressured scenarios.  What might surprise you even more is how having additional time was consistently reliable in prompting assistance even in students scoring the lowest on compassion indicators in the personality test.

Impact on the Exercise of Compassion

We must ask ourselves what impact time, financial and congested space pressures have upon us and our children.  If mature individuals training to be clergy, reflecting upon rendering service to others,  allow situational time pressure to trump such service,  we must recognize our collective weakness in this area.

We must also recognize the burden carried by those called upon to provide compassionate care such as nurses, clergy, counselors and care providers.  As situational pressures increase, such individuals’ struggles with burnout and compassion-fatigue also increase.  Those upon whom we most rely to be compassionate,  are struggling to do so.

So, What Can We Do?

We need to respect that circumstances can compromise noble intent.  We need to re-commit to the basic safeguards which allow for rejuvenation such as community, reflection, rest and exercise.  However, for the safeguards to exist, we need to incorporate that breathing room known as margin into our lives.  Without it, there can be no sustained practice of compassion.

Please seek out and support those providing compassionate care to others.  If you are so inclined, please join me in praying for such individuals.  And, as a special shout-out, I would like to commend my friend, Melissa AuClair, who is doing groundbreaking work to serve such individuals at Unstuck Nurse.

Let’s restore the habits and practices which foster compassion today.


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2 thoughts on “SLR 069: Removing Roadblocks to Compassion

  1. Many of us think we are very compassionate when we really do not give ourselves enough time to execute that compassion. Your insightful reasoning has struck a nerve in many of us. Your striving for margin has already given you more time and resources to let your compassion blossom.