Why do we care when we see the Nigerian schoolgirls who are the prisoners of Boko Haram? We do watch. Most of us don't change the channel. Why?
There is nothing that ordinarily might catch our eyes: no one is badly injured, beautifully dressed, or posing in a sexy way. And no one is asking us to do something: give money; write a letter, or anything else. Usually when we are shown suffering somewhere else in the world, like the Japanese tsunami disaster, we are asked to donate to those in distress. When it comes to the schoolgirls, we can only feel compassion for them; there is nothing we can do to help them.
While we watch the Nigerian story, many of us imagine the despair, anger, and frustration that the parents of those poor girls must be feeling. Even if we aren't parents ourselves, we feel a concern for those desperate mothers and fathers. When I became a parent, I felt that my heart had been opened; I became concerned about the welfare and suffering of all children, not just my own.
When we see those captured schoolgirls on the screen, we feel what I call "global compassion." Despite our cultural and linguistic differences, we are able to feel the pain of their situation. What we do share is a sense of common humanity; they are fellow human beings, and they and their parents are suffering.
In the history of human existence, the capacity to witness the suffering of totally unknown and faraway people is but a blip, a moment in our time on this planet made possible by technology. Compassion was shaped as a human characteristic for family members; the Dalai Lama and Charles Darwin both thought the mother's compassion for her child is the seed of compassion. We don't have to learn it; it is given to parents.
Familial and Familiars Compassion
When I lived and worked in an isolated preliterate culture in New Guinea 57 years ago, they were still using stone implements. It was not possible to witness the suffering of total strangers. Instead, compassion was felt for members of their own family, fellow villagers, or related tribes. I called this "familiars compassion." Although the research has not and cannot now be done, I suspect that everyone in that culture felt both familial and "familiars" compassion and never had an opportunity to experience compassion for strangers, for there were none.
Compassion in Today's World
Today, even though we can observe the distress of others far away and unlike us, not everyone feels "global compassion." Some do, but generally, when the victim appears different from us in every way, fewer of us feel moved to take kindhearted action.
Perhaps the Nigerian schoolgirls are an exception, overcoming the usual obstacles to compassion because their plight touches on our own hardwired parental concern. The pull is unavoidable. Or maybe it is just the novelty that grabs us; have we ever before seen so many young girls kidnapped?
More about the nature of compassion can be found in Paul Ekman's new ebook Moving Toward Global Compassion. Additionally, new videos of his discussions on compassion with the Dalai Lama will appear on the Paul Ekman Group website soon. Sign up for the Paul Ekman Group newsletter to be notified when the first "webisode" becomes available.