Here’s a quick Christmas quiz. (Warning: it’s not a very merry quiz.)
What is the common thread that links the following seven facts about Australia in 2017?
- This year, we continued holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centres in conditions that amount to mental torture.
- After 26 years of economic growth, income inequality continued to increase.
- Between 65,000 and 70,000 of us attempted suicide.
- Anxiety remained at epidemic proportions, with about two million sufferers. (A further one million were battling depression.)
- Loneliness became an even greater social issue.
- More than 100,000 people remained homeless.
- About 800,000 children were living in poverty, and 16 percent of our children lacked regular, reliable access to fresh, nutritious food.
So what’s the link?
Answer: Those seven facts about us, each in its own way, are symptoms of a national compassion deficit (NCD) that is far more dangerous than the budgetary deficits we are so accustomed to hearing about.
Compassion – our willingness to act kindly, respectfully and charitably towards others – is the noblest of all human qualities. It’s also the quality that, more than any other, exposes the depth of our commitment to fairness and equality.
It is noble because, when practised properly, it is not dispensed selectively or in response to emotional feelings of affection, sympathy or pity. Compassion is more like a mental discipline; a habit; a determined pattern of behaviour that relies on a particular understanding of the meaning of “love” (perhaps the old-fashioned “loving-kindness” might be a better word). This is a form of love that’s expressed in our actions rather than our feelings; love as motivation rather than emotion.
Compassion is what makes sense of the idea that you could love someone you don’t particularly like; that you could even love your enemies, in the sense that you could treat them kindly and with respect even if you disagreed with them, or felt you had been wronged by them.
For Christians, this week is a time for reflecting upon such things, since the core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are all about this kind of non-discriminatory love. Even for non-Christians, or those who adopt an entirely secular view of Christmas, there’s a kind of magic in a festival that celebrates the idea of giving – especially the idea of giving to charities who, at this time of year, are inundated with requests for both emotional and practical support from the poor, the lonely, the marginalised and the disadvantaged. (The Salvation Army has just reported that one million Australian parents will be unable to afford a gift for their children this Christmas.)
If you don’t much care for lofty interpretations of compassion, you could settle for a simple biological explanation. We humans, like most species on the planet, are social beings. We need each other. We rely on communities to nurture, sustain and protect us. We are hopeless in isolation. All of which means that it is natural for us to act charitably and co-operatively in the work of maintaining harmonious and mutually supportive communities.
Natural to co-operate? Natural to be altruistic towards people in need? Doesn’t the evidence point to the very opposite? Isn’t our society more individualistic and competitive than ever? Isn’t the so-called Me Culture rampant?
All true. We are living through a period in the evolution of Western societies like ours where we seem to have lost sight of our biological destiny as communitarians. We have allowed ourselves to yield to the blandishments of commercial, political, economic and cultural propaganda that lulls us into thinking that the relentless – even ruthless – ruthless pursuit of self-interest is an appropriate strategy for living in a competitive, uncertain world.
That propaganda works as well as it does precisely because we are living in a time of unprecedented social fragmentation – more relationship breakdowns, more people than ever living alone, more reliance on information technology to “connect” us, though it is actually keeping us apart. (The latest research suggests that the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to suffer from feelings of loneliness and depression.)
No wonder Michael Kyrios, past president of the Australian Psychological Society, has identified social cohesion as our greatest challenge and that, according to a speaker at this year’s American Psychological Association conference, loneliness is looming as a greater threat to public health than obesity.
It’s like a cascade of consequences: social fragmentation increases the risk of loneliness; loneliness fuels self-absorption; self-absorption increases our anxiety level and anxiety, in turn, inhibits social engagement … and so the vicious circle turns.
The more anxious we feel, the less likely we are to develop the habit of compassion – though compassion is, ironically, an effective antidote to anxiety because it shifts the focus away from the self. And when enough wells of personal compassion dry up, this becomes a societal problem – national compassion deficit – and you end up with those seven nasty facts I listed in the quiz.
The good news is that we don’t have to rely on governments to reduce the NCD. We can all contribute, in large and small ways, right there in the place where we work and the street where we live. Once established, the habit of compassion soon comes naturally: we greet people we pass in the street; we’re there for someone who needs a listening ear; we notice when someone seems distressed, lonely or sad, or when they need someone to mow their lawn or carry their shopping. The question “Do I like this person enough to bother helping them?” simply doesn’t arise.
Compassion multiplies by example – especially the example we set our children (“charity begins at home”, after all). If you find yourself singing the old carol Good King Wenceslas this Christmas, pay particular attention to the last line: “You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
Hugh Mackay is a social psychologist and researcher. His new book, Australia Reimagined, will be published by Macmillan in May.