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James R. Doty, M.D. Headshot

The Science of Compassion

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One day several months ago, I was leaving a lawyer's office where I was engaged in a matter where a donation I have made to a non-profit was misappropriated for activities unrelated to my intent. I was quite chagrined and frankly disappointed. I had trusted the individuals who had solicited the donation and it had obviously been misplaced. In this mood, I left the lawyer's office. I was not in the best part of town but was hungry so headed to an outdoor café for lunch. That was when a black youth in his 20s approached me to ask if I could give him money so that he and his mother could take the bus home. He explained that their car had broken down. Nowhere did I see a car or a mother.

Whether we like it or not we all have prejudices, and I am certainly guilty of this as well. I immediately reacted to the fact that this was a black youth in a bad neighborhood soliciting money: I assumed he probably needed the money for drugs. Having just discussed with my lawyer the misuse of a gift I had made, I was all the more hesitant to trust. As I was about to decline his request and quickly make a beeline to the café, I asked myself whether this is really how I wish to live... always assuming that people are dishonest until proven otherwise. I decided that I did not. While in all likelihood the money I was about to give would be used to support a drug habit, I looked at the youth and said, "I'm sorry to hear about your car and that you and your mom are stranded." I gave him the amount he requested and proceeded on to the café.

During the rest of the walk, I continued with this internal dialogue about wanting to believe in the goodness versus recognizing that maybe I'm a sucker. I finally decided that I was a sucker and was chiding myself that I was just too trusting and needed to stop assuming people's good intent. This was as I was looking down at my food, ignoring those around me because of the discussion going on in my head. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned to see the same black youth standing there with an elderly woman. He said he wanted to introduce me to his mother and to thank me again for giving them bus fare. As I felt tears rolling down my cheeks, I mumbled a "You're welcome."

As I later reflected on this event, it reminded me of a tale told in the book Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, about a group of Hasidic Jews visiting the Museum of Tolerance who were standing before two doors. One of the doors was labeled PREJUDICED and was open, and the other was labeled UNPREJUDICED and was locked. They kept trying to open the UNPREJUDICED door and refused to enter through the PREJUDICED DOOR. The museum's point is that, as demonstrated by my own behavior, we all succumb to prejudice.

As demonstrated in the work of Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D. and Aneeta Rattan, postdoctoral research scholar in the psychology department at Stanford University, race has a profound effect with regard to the sentencing of juvenile offenders. In Florida in 2009, for example, 84 percent of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole were African-American. Sadly, when prompted to think of an African-American youth committing a violent crime, individuals support sentencing all juveniles to life without parole. This was true of individuals low and high in prejudice, and for liberals and conservatives alike.

Thus, race prejudice has a profound effect on dampening our ability to be compassionate and merciful. The reality is that many of us don't even have insight into our prejudices, whether due to race or other factors. It is imperative that each of us try to garner insight into our prejudices. Awareness is the first step toward more compassionate decisions.

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