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Hair, Oil Spills, and the Science of Irrational Compassion

06/01/2010 05:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Like most of America, my stomach has turned watching the ungodly effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf. And just when you thought you couldn't take the political and corporate games anymore, the selfless American spirit surfaced and has taken the air of hopelessness that has choked us all and replaced it with a breath of fresh altruism. We have heeded the call to help and have sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair to the Gulf to assist in creatively soaking up all the oil.

Or so we thought we did.

Well, I mean, we did send all the hair and we did have a motivating spirit to help, but the missing part of the equation is that it doesn't work. Apparently, commercial boom absorbs more oil and less water than hair boom.

Nonetheless, I was quite amazed by the responsiveness of hair sent down to the Gulf in what seemed a record amount of time to a layman like me "on the outside." As a neuroscientist and trained shrink, I was thinking of this spark of human compassion at a party the other night when I heard another story that moved me even more. Not because the story was any better, per se; just that it appeared more effective and more disconcerting. I like flagging those dialectical moments as they always hold learning for my brain. Knowing a bit about how the brain is wired, I started thinking that this apparent correlation wasn't just an accident.

As I downed my hamburger and macaroni salad on a warm Friday night, I met this wonderfully kind older gentleman who made a presence walking into the backyard where the party was going on and said, "I need a pump for an air mattress. Anyone have one?" Not the typical request you expect to hear at a barbeque, and so my ears perked up on this one. After hearing in the distance that this gentleman was requesting this air pump to blow up a mattress so a homeless war vet could have a place to stay in his house, I couldn't help but meander over there. Suddenly the country club talks around me paled in comparison to this man's story.

I suppose I was mostly fascinated with this gentleman for the following reason: his decision to open his house to a complete stranger appeared to represent everything I am not -- that is, someone who has the ability to love radically, all the while transcending the brain's sense of control. Sure, I can hear all the "wise" folks out there now who are "right" in their rebuttals when they talk about fear of safety with kids around, not taking chances with a possible mental illness in the family environment, substance use questions, etc. But where is the fine line between a compassionate gesture that busts through self-protection in a good way and one that breaks one's inherent boundaries that protect our treasures within?

To me this is the heart of the matter around matters of the heart -- busting our brains open to not just reactively give but give what is needed most. Most of the time our reactive giving has a self-interest component attached to it. I am not saying that the hair that was sent down to the Gulf was in vain, for what matters is that we cared enough about the problem to want to do something about it. What I am saying is that perhaps selflessness is just half of the equation of making a difference. The other half, seems to me, to be about confronting our discomfort to engage what lies behind our first-order response to give. This, to me, takes a bit of self-confrontative thinking, as the brain is wired to be a defaulter -- bringing solutions to consciousness that have the least amount of effort attached to it.

Something may be deemed helpful merely because it makes sense, not because it is fully true. Thinking about one's thinking and seeing a bit more if our decision is not just "not bad" but most optimal for a situation, seems to be a key to solving complex problems in humanity, be it colossal oil spills or homelessness. Reflection requires the heart to not just give but to listen and inquire deeply. This can be the most painful part of giving. For the more we do this, the less it is about us and our convenience.

Reading this blog, I am sure there will be some taking case with my "functional or effective compassion" angle, for they will hear that I am taking case with giving itself. Isn't giving better than sitting on your butt and doing nothing? Perhaps. But tell that to a spouse who receives thoughtful acts from the other spouse but not what was requested. That still feels like a swing and a miss. We all know that feeling, right?

The problem is that sometimes what we requested may not be what was needed -- i.e., the tons of hair sent down to the Gulf. Though we all will have hits and misses with our attempts to give, it is not about getting it right or perfect. It may just be about learning to be more effective and many times that may be the opposite of what we think. Certainly that homeless man is quite thankful to the gentleman at the party who was quite contrarian to culture and listened well beyond one's automatic response.