Compassion, Empathy and Being a Humanist

RECENTLY A HUMANIST friend asked if compassion and empathy had any place in our lives, and if so, who or what were the focuses of those emotions in us? The way we answer these questions, said my friend, would demonstrate what being a humanist means and how we define ourselves.

Of course, most people would like to believe that they’re compassionate and empathetic. Furthermore, when asked who or what the subjects of their emotions are, they would list a litany of things, which include not only two-legged animals but also the four-legged variety. However, the ways that compassion and empathy play in our lives is only a gateway to deeper issues that we face as humanists.

We all see the world through different sets of eyes. Some view human beings as inherently good and trustworthy, while others take the exact opposite view. What may seem incredibly wrong and hurtful to some may seem normal to others and vice versa. Thus, for instance, someone who finds himself or herself in a jail may be the subject of one person’s compassion, but may be thought of as deserving punishment by another. Does this make some people more or less compassionate or empathetic than others?

Most people who take action to help relieve suffering would claim to do so because they’re compassionate and empathetic. They believe that it’s their responsibility or duty to do what they can to make the world a better place for all. On the other hand, there are those who believe that if you can’t make it on your own, you’re not deserving of help. They believe that all people have the same opportunities and if they don’t make something of themselves, then they deserve what they get.

As a humanist, I’m motivated by compassion and sympathy to help others. But I realize that although it’s beneficial to those who receive help, the act of helping primarily satisfies my own sense of responsibility and duty. It provides temporary relief for those in need but changes nothing of the situation that puts them there. We focus on helping others with their immediate needs because we can’t bear the suffering we see. But in doing so, we become oblivious to the structures that keep them there.

By viewing the world through the eyes of those who need help, it allows me to better see the structures that make them dependent on my compassion and empathy. For instance, children in poor or minority neighborhoods attend poorly funded public schools, then don’t have the resources to continue on to tertiary education and therefore can’t acquire the skills for a decent-paying job. They are unable to pull themselves out of poverty. The hopelessness with which they face the barriers that keep them in poverty is palpable.

I consider it my responsibility to not only help others who may need help, but also to recognize and help them change those structures that prevent them from becoming self-sufficient and having full upward mobility. People should be able to choose how they wish to live for themselves in a way that fits their own needs. Granted, this isn’t an easy task. The various structural obstacles that certain people have to overcome in order to achieve full economic freedom can be truly daunting.

In the end, our task is not to make others the subjects for our compassion and empathy, but to work towards constructing a society where people will be free from this dependence. As humanists, we must first learn about the barriers that the less fortunate face, then work along side them to eliminate these barriers. We should not only help provide for their immediate and short-term needs, but to also help them access resources that will make them independent of the compassion and empathy of others, and allow them to achieve long-term self-sufficiency and economic freedom. These resources would, at a minimum, include education, health care, legal protection, voting rights, equal employment opportunity, and a clean environment. Anything less than this could leave them dependent on others and create a different kind of prison: one in which people are prevented from living with dignity.

So, to answer the question posed by my friend, I feel a sense of compassion and empathy toward those in need. But it’s important that we differentiate between our need to help and the needs of those whom we are helping.

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