Becoming Compassionate

Yesterday, I saw the tweet below that elicited a familiar pattern of emotions out of me. From anger and sadness to sympathy to vigilant urgency. (I'll be the first to recognize that this pattern of emotions is borne out of my passion and also online outrage culture, which can be an asset or weakness. I digress. Also, full disclosure: I reached out to Lexi on Facebook to ensure she was okay with me writing about this.)

Lexi Baskin is a University of Kentucky – my alma mater – College of Pharmacy student. She is undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. She has been using a handicapped parking spot as she undergoes radiation treatment. If her story is presented to anybody personally, absolutely nobody would object to her usage of a handicapped spot. Most people, at least by college age, understand that chemo saps your energy and presents an entirety of other complications aside from the cancer. But cancer and chemo can also be invisible, as in the case of someone believing that Lexi wasn't "obviously handicapped." I use quotations here because it's absolutely nobody's discretion who is or isn't handicapped, especially not the casual observer of a university parking lot. 

This article was written about the story.

Unfortunately, this story is remarkably common. This happens to people that suffer from all kinds of unseen diseases, be it cystic fibrosis, cancer, or anything else. Handicapped spots aren't only for people that are physically disabled. But to be completely candid, that does not matter anyway. 

What matters here is the lack of humanity, decency, and compassionate displayed by the individual (or worse, individuals) that were audacious enough to make a public display out of shaming Lexi. Clearly, the person(s) responsible didn't have the courage to speak directly with Lexi to understand her plight. They explicitly – and cowardly – stated that they felt she was abusing the handicapped spot, meaning they saw her getting out of her car. If they felt the welling of any sort of emotions – I’d imagine enough anger to pursue this ridiculous action – they should have had the courage to present themselves directly to understand. They owe Lexi an apology.

I want to applaud Lexi for a moment. Her tweet wasn't rude or callous; her tweet was intended to educate and spread a positive message. And it did exactly that. She mentioned had she was overwhelmed by the positive response to her tweet. She didn't condemn or feel hatred for that person. I can recognize how it feels when someone doesn't understand your predicament and they make a comment that can be taken to heart. In those moments, I'm pretty good at remaining calm and educating people about the importance of words, especially when they’re talking with someone going through a chronic or acute disease. I can't say, however, that I would have had such a PG response like Lexi did. So, for that, good for Lexi. It took remarkable composure to do that and it clearly reverberated through twitter (48k RTs & 108k likes currently!).

There is a common moral argument about whether or not humans are programmed to be "good" or "bad." (I use quotations here because there are moral arguments about the definitions of "good" and "bad" which then leads to the moral argument of if either truly exist. In morality, nothing is concrete which, in my opinion, probably makes it difficult to prove there is an ultimate truth here.)

It is hard to argue against the fact that compassion breeds happiness. There have been brain-imaging studies (cited by the aforementioned PsychologyToday article) that show "humans often sacrifice material benefits to endorse or to oppose societal causes based on moral beliefs." In these brain-imaging studies, the pleasure centers of the brain are equally active when we witness someone charitably giving to a cause we agree with as when we receive money ourselves. 

As a scientist, I strongly believe in using studies to best determine what works to reach our goals, and no human doesn't desire happiness. I believe achieving happiness is both an art and a science. Based on the study cited above, I don't think there is any argument against compassion being a vital part of being happier. 

But compassion requires work. While it may be true that being compassionate generally makes us happier, it requires an effort to put in that work. Humans are driven by reward mechanisms, so when the "reward" for an action is increased blood flow to the pleasure centers, it's hard to foresee how good that will feel – which is why humans tend to pursue activities that make us feel good because we constantly forget how good we feel when we do them. When the reward is something concrete – money, winning the competition or game, or just a reward that we know exactly what it is – the motivation comes easier because we actually know what the reward is. Being compassionate is both a skill and a habit. When compassion is something you're not actively pursuing, it's easy to not recognize how much it can do to lift up your life. 

Compassion is something we must want to do. Doing something good for another person is not the same thing as being compassionate. Sometimes, societal norms are so strong that we do them for that reason. An example, an elderly man struggling with his groceries. The societal norm would be to help him. But the ulterior motivation of the helper determines whether the helper is being compassionate or just living by societal norms. If the motivation is "ugh well I know helping him is the right thing to do, so I guess I will" then that's living by societal norms. If the motivation is dictated by  "I think he needs help and I can be helpful to him so I'm going to help,” compassion is the guiding factor. The trick here is that most times, becoming compassionate means starting to be better about doing the things that you know are the right things to do but oftentimes choose not to do it. Once it becomes more habitual to do the right thing, the reward for being compassionate not only becomes addictive, but it becomes a habit loop that we recognize as being worth it. It's in this reasoning that I recognize becoming compassionate as a skill and a habit that requires work.

At the end of the day, there's one thing that's for sure: compassion is not a limiting reagent. It is, quite literally, a gift that keeps on giving. It has snowballing effects, for both the person giving it and the person receiving it. Compassion is something we will never be perfect at and that's the beauty of it. It will get easier and easier being compassionate and it will make you feel better and it will leave others feeling better, too. 

I know I need to get better about a lot of things myself. I constantly tell myself I'm going to send that "I'm proud of you" text, I tell myself I want to volunteer more, I want to be more active in charities, I want to be less judgemental and less self-righteous. But I also find writing to be a platform, so I'm writing this message in hopes that it can inspire others to actively pursue compassion more in their day-to-day lives with me as I try to become better. Truthfully, there's no downfall.

So, I implore you to do something compassionate today. Tomorrow, doing two compassionate things will be a bit easier. Don't be like the person that put the notes on Lexi's car; be more like Lexi.